Dwight Howard spoke to his team about toughness at the beginning of training camp. The lesson from the loss in the Eastern Conference Finals has weighed pretty heavily on Howard’s mind.
He said he did not realize he had another level in his game until his team was down 3-0 and fighting for its life. Howard turned in some masterful performances in Game Four and Game Five and played very well in Game Six, even if his team could not match the effort.
The sentiment was echoed by Stan Van Gundy before the team met the Celtics for the first time since that Playoff loss on Christmas Day. It should never need to be reminded that when the Magic and the Celtics get together, the score is going to be pretty low.
The question was: Can this rag-tag bunch of players, still learning to play together as a unit, hang with the tough-minded Celtics? It would have been easy for this team (and perhaps somewhat excusable) if they could not match the intensity level of its opponent and slowly fade away.
Only, that did not happen.
Instead the Magic found a way to scratch and claw and stay in a game they, perhaps, had no business being in.
Hedo Turkoglu was not the only thing that reminded of the 2009 team that made a surprising run to the NBA Finals.
“It was tough, but we stuck in there together,” Howard said after Saturday’s win over the Celtics. “We didn’t give up. Coach kept staying on us about staying tough and staying mentally tough throughout all the situations that were going on tonight. We did an excellent job. The game was very tough. And I know for myself, I was a little frustrated because I wanted to play good on Christmas. But we stayed with it and we got a good win.”
Howard struggled mightily with foul trouble and establishing an offensive rhythm. He scored only six points and was one for four from the floor.
But a strong characteristic of that 2009 Finals team was its ability to play well even if its individual components were not playing well. That team had versatile scoring and could find points against anybody — really taking advantage of whatever matchup its opponent gave it.
On Saturday, Hedo Turkoglu, Brandon Bass and, in the fourth quarter, Jameer Nelson and JJ Redick were the ones to step up.
Howard said the game on Saturday reminded him of the Finals team because they did not allow the frustration throughout the day to keep them from staying competitive. It would have been pretty easy to fold after shooting 5 for 17 (29.4 percent) in the second quarter and 31.6 percent in the first half. Orlando was down nine with 7:42 to go, a seemingly insurmountable lead in a game where both teams were struggling to put the ball in the basket.
He said the team kept fighting like it did in 2009 and picked up the win.
While no one else made the comparison to the Finals team, it was pleasant to see this trait appear from this team. Perhaps that will to both win with offense — like Thursday against San Antonio — and defense — like Saturday against Boston — is what was missing before the trades. Whether that spark will continue into this week’s games is going to be test for this team moving forward as the Magic hit “the grind” portion of the schedule.
“A game like (Saturday) shows how tough this team is going to be once we get everything going,” Howard said. “We’re going to remain humble and we’re going to continue to do the things that got us these last two wins — hard work, playing with no fear and just having fun.”