Posted: Thursday May 27, 2010 2:24AM ; Updated: Thursday May 27, 2010 8:34AM
Ian Thomsen
Ian Thomsen>INSIDE THE NBA

Celtics' worst nightmare comes alive as Howard takes charge

Story Highlights

Dwight Howard started to assert himself in Game 4; in Game 5 he exploded

Various Celtics have tried to defend Howard; they're just getting banged up

In Game 6, the Celtics may have to deal with Howard without their top centers

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(2) Magic vs. (4) Celtics
Celtics lead 3-2
113 92
Game 6: @ BOS Fri. May 28, 8:30 p.m., ESPN
Game 7: @ ORL Sun. May 30, 8:30 p.m.*, ESPN
Times eastern, * - if necessary

Dwight Howard
Dwight Howard forced the series to another game with 21 points, 10 rebounds, four blocks and relentless efforts at both ends of the floor.
AP
NBA Team Page
NBA Team Page

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Glen Davis tried to stand up. His legs churned sleepily as his feet slipped under him and he fell forward onto his shoulders like a bull collapsing in the ring. He was the latest victim of Dwight Howard.

"When I got back [on defense] I was looking for him, because that was my man," said Howard after the Magic won Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals 113-92 on Wednesday to continue their revival from an 0-3 deficit. "Then when I saw him down, I was like, oh, man. I wanted to help him, but he's on the other team ..."

Davis pushed himself up and staggered toward referee Joe Crawford as whistles blew like cops seeking reinforcements and members of the Celtics ran toward midcourt to bring their teammate softly to ground. The diagnosis was a concussion that may prevent Davis from playing in Game 6 on Friday in Boston.

Back at the far end an Amway Arena worker pushing a mop to wipe the sweat off the floor leaned down to point out what appeared to be a piece of Davis' tooth that was plucked off the ground daintily with a napkin by a large musclebound policeman.

This was the Celtics' undeclared fear. They should regret their failure to finish off the Magic in a Game 4 sweep on Monday in Boston when Howard was beginning to find his way at their expense. On Wednesday he forced this series to another game with 21 points, 10 rebounds, four blocks and relentless efforts at both ends of the floor.

Now the Celtics face the possibility of confronting Howard in Game 6 Friday without Davis, without starting center Kendrick Perkins and maybe without Rasheed Wallace, who appeared to injure his back. Howard had something to do with all of those casualties, but he isn't interested in taking out a Celtic here or there. He wants to finish the entire team.

Ever since the Magic humiliated themselves with their 94-71 loss in Game 3, Howard has behaved like a 6-foot-11, 275-pound ninja surrounded by a quartet of Celtic big men, each of whom owns a ring of the kind that Howard so desperately wants. Their scheme has been to guard Howard one-on-one and so each has made his run at Howard individually. This makes sense in terms of basketball but it makes no sense for combatting the ninja. Why in the movies doesn't everyone attack the ninja altogether at once to smother him under the collective weight? But, no, they step forward one at a time.

In Game 3 it was Kevin Garnett who was raked across his eyes by Howard as he looked the other way; this was followed moments later by an elbow to Garnett's head that forced him to one knee, and which led the NBA to later assess Howard with a Flagrant 1. In that same game he chopped down so hard across Perkins' forearms as to threaten to buckle him backwards in half. As he watched Rajon Rondo stand over Perkins and complain loudly to the referee, Howard could see plainly he was onto something. He had discovered his voice, in a way -- the tenor and tone of his leadership.

"People talk all the time about leadership and guys talking in the locker room and all of that," said Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy. "I'm not saying there's anything wrong with that, but what leads your teammates is playing hard and people follow along. That's leadership, and I think both of our captains came with great energy and great, great toughness."

Leadership has come naturally to Howard's fellow captain, Jameer Nelson, who delivered 24 points and five assists Wednesday. But Nelson has never had a problem expressing himself or making big plays because the ball has usually been in his hands. Howard has been the secondary option defensively, where he has protected the rim behind his teammates, as well as offensively, where he managed only 10.2 shots per game this season as three teammates received more attempts while spacing the floor around him.

When the Celtics were having their way at Orlando's expense over Games 1-3, Howard was casting about for the proper response. In Game 2 he was laughing in between plays in hope of relaxing his teammates, but that didn't help. Only after the Game 3 verdict did he appear to stop worrying about how he might look. Ever since then his expression has been blank. Ruthless. Uncompromising.

The Celtics don't like this change in him. It is almost the opposite of his opening round when he was in constant foul trouble; now Howard throws and bodies his opponents without the appearance of effort and therefore fails to draw attention to himself. When a reporter mentioned that Howard had "laid to waste your guys, just one after another knocking guys out of the game," Rivers tried a leveraged response.

"I didn't know that was legal, but anyway, he did," said Rivers. "But listen, he's a physical guy, and he should be. That is his gift. He's doing what he should do, and we've just got to do a better job of taking the hits, I guess."

How things have changed. Just a few days ago Perkins was referring to himself as the best post defender in basketball, thanks in part to his work against Howard in this series. On Wednesday he was ejected in the final minute of the first half following a lightly-delivered defensive foul against Howard. Perkins reacted with typical outrage and received his second technical of the game as well as his seventh of the playoffs, a threshhold that will force his suspension from the next game. (The NBA may yet grant a reprieve Thursday by reviewing his initial technical foul in Game 5, when he earned a double-technical along with Magic center Marcin Gortat.)

"Big Baby" Davis figures to be unavailable after suffering a concussion. "I don't know what kind of test they're going to do with Baby because he's a little delirious half the time anyway, so I don't know how he's going to pass a test," joked Rivers. "But I guess he's going to have to do something for them to clear him."

Over the opening games Wallace was another Celtic who was earning raves for his defense against Howard. While Wallace had another strong performance with 21 points on nine shots, he was no match for Howard while fouling out in 18 minutes. Early in the second half Wallace tried to body the Magic center as they turned to run back downcourt, only to land on his rear as Howard stepped aside. And yet there was no giggling or taunting from Howard. He was playing it straight and true.

"He's still young, you have to remember that," said Magic guard J.J. Redick of 24-year-old Howard. "And he's still learning how to lead. It's always interesting to see how people respond when their backs are against the wall, and so far this team individually and collectively has responded really well."

They've followed the example of Howard, who has been getting the better of his matchups with Garnett while forcing Ray Allen to miss contorted layups and making Rondo miserable. When the Celtics' point guard tried to finish what should have been an easy basket in transition, he wound up instead in the photographer's row after Howard blocked his layup from behind.

"He realized if he runs, no one can run with him," said Magic forward Matt Barnes. "I really think all that rest we had is starting to pay off a little bit. They've been through some wars the first two rounds, and we kind of walked through the first two rounds. It took us a little bit to get going, but at the same we have fresh legs so I think that's to our advantage now."

Can the Celtics hold him off for one more win? Or will this latest spurt of growth from the league's most imposing big man push Orlando to the biggest playoff comeback in league history?

"Our biggest thing is not trying to just fight and wrestle with them," said Howard. "Like I tell these guys, it's all mental. Right now we have to will ourselves to try to get the job done. We don't want to just get into a pushing match with those guys. We just want to run and play our game and try to beat them down mentally. That's the key right there."

It's one thing to talk about it. Howard is doing it.

 
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