Dwight Howard is usually one of the more visibly energetic players on the court. But last night, Howard and his Orlando Magic teammates produced one of their most lethargic performances, as well as lowest-scoring, in an 87-56 loss to the Celtics.
Howard actually started the game strong, getting two dunks and lefthand hook in a 1:04 span and finishing the first quarter with 12 points. But Howard would add only 6 more points after that as the Orlando offense short-circuited.
“They pressured us a lot, you know, we rushed shots,’’ Howard said. “It just wasn’t a good night overall for us. We have a game [tonight at Indiana], we’ll bounce back and we’ll have a better one. Like I told the guys, we can’t get this game but this game is over with and we can play better.
“We just allowed them to get up in our heads. They won the mental battle. They’ve been doing that for a couple years, sometimes. They would get in our head and we’ve got to learn how to play through that and we’ll get better. We’ll get better.’’
Even though he was off target and having an off night, Howard was able to threaten the Celtics defense enough that Jermaine O’Neal fouled out early in the final quarter and Greg Stiemsma committed five fouls in 10 minutes of playing time. The Celtics were playing shorthanded, but the Magic could not capitalize on winning this battle of attrition as Kevin Garnett was able to throw Howard off.
“After the first quarter, it all went downhill for us,’’ Howard said. “But there’s no need to hang our heads. We’ve been playing great, we’ve had some subpar games, but we just have to continue to get better, learn from this game.
“We can’t let a team beat us mentally. That’s what they did. It wasn’t like they did anything special. They just played regular basketball and beat us. We need to keep our heads, stay together - one thing we didn’t do, which is not a characteristic we as a team are like - we didn’t stay together. We started to point fingers, blaming each other. I have to do a better job policing that, me being the captain of the team. And we’ll get better.’’
Howard said most of the Magic’s failings were caused by self-destructive actions.
“I rushed shots, I didn’t take my time,’’ he said. “It had nothing to do with the defense of Kevin Garnett, or anybody else. When you rush it on the post you tend to miss shots. It’s just about being patient. [Garnett] did all he could do, but I think, for me, it was just rushing shots. So next time it’s be patient and go to work.’’
But Howard also displayed a sincere respect for the Celtics.
“You have to respect everybody, you have to respect every team you play and they were a great team in the past,’’ Howard said. “But I don’t think we came out as a team with the right attitude, you know? And the right energy. They just came out and played.
“Even myself, there’s no way KG should be beating me up and down the floor. There’s a couple plays he beat me up and down the floor, there’s just no way - he’s 40. I just can’t allow that to happen. I have to step up and be the leader for this team. When they see me doing this - out of my character, not playing the way I play, it falls to everyone else. I have to do a better job, then I have to police everybody else.
“To this day we look up to a team like Boston. The way they play together, the way they are off the court. They went back to Boston basketball, everybody touched the ball, the way they ran, they played aggressive, on both ends of the court. That’s what you ask from a championship organization, that’s what we’re trying to build in Orlando. They did a good job tonight. We’re just trying to come back and we’ll see those guys Thursday.’’
The Magic will be seeking to make up for this defeat when the teams meet Thursday in Orlando. But Howard did not seem to be thinking about getting revenge on O’Neal, regarding an early second-half clash that resulted in double technical fouls.
“I just asked [the official] a man-to-man question: ‘If a guy put a finger in your face are you just going to let it stay there or are you going to move it?’ ’’ Howard said. “He actually said, ‘Well, I would move it.’ I just said, ‘Well, that’s what I did.’
“It’s stupid to fight, so I wasn’t about to go into it or go back into it with him. But that’s kind of crossing the line when somebody puts their hand in your face. He put a hand in my face - I didn’t run up on him.’’
Frank Dell’Apa can be reached at email@example.com.