ORLANDO — With four and a half minutes left in the first quarter of Thursday’s game, Dwight Howard picked up his second foul. Howard has been known to suffer through some foul trouble here and there, but he always had the safety blanket in Marcin Gortat.
Rumors continue to swirl around Orlando as the team may — or may not — be looking for a true backup center to support Howard. But the Magic’s depth in the front court was tested when Howard went to the bench after picking up that second foul. For the record, Howard turned in an incredible 29-point, 14-rebound performance and had only one more foul after the quick two early in the game.
It was something of a nightmare scenario the Magic will have to face as the team moves forward this season.
No team may stand as a bigger test for Howard’s ability to both score and stay on the floor then the Magic’s old foe in the Celtics. Kendrick Perkins may be out while recovering from a torn ACL he suffered during last year’s NBA Finals, but Boston still has Shaquille O’Neal, Jermaine O’Neal, Kevin Garnett and Glen Davis to throw at Howard. Each of them presents their own defensive and offensive problems. And for Orlando to win today’s Christmas Day showdown and future matchups with Boston, Howard is going to need to be able to stay on the floor.
“He just needs to go out and play,” coach Stan Van Gundy said before the game Saturday. “Our depth and everything else, that’s my problem. That’s not his problem.”
Against Boston, Orlando will need Howard to play as he usually does. Boston is a team that plays extremely well together and Van Gundy said knows how to play with each other (something Orlando is still learning how to do). The Celtics are leading the Eastern Conference and are on a 14-game winning streak.
The Celtics are very much the same team that defeated the Magic in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals. The big three of Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett will continue to give teams offensive and defensive nightmares although the Magic will get a reprieve with Rajon Rondo’s absence. Boston also gets Jermaine O’Neal back from injury today.
A big difference for the Celtics may be Shaquille O’Neal.
“With Perkins out and Jermaine O’Neal struggling with injuries, he’s brought them the size they have had in the past,” Van Gundy said. “Shaq’s still a guy who is a force down low. He’s not a guy that is going to go 36-38 minutes a game every night and put up the numbers he used to. But for the minutes he’s in there, when they throw the ball into the post, he’s someone to contend with. He may have lost a little, but he’s no smaller than he was before.”
Howard has a spotty history against Shaq (and Jermaine, actually), doing both good and bad as the two tend to cancel each other out. Don’t get it wrong, Howard needs to be aggressive, but this will also be a test of how well Howard can keep himself out of foul trouble and on the court against one of the NBA’s better interior defenses.
Van Gundy suggested Thursday night he would have no problems playing Howard 48 minutes per game and that his young star is perfectly capable of doing that. It may not get to that point, but Howard seems willing to do the work.
Provided he stays out of foul trouble.
The next few games will likely determine whether a backup tandem of Ryan Anderson and Brandon Bass can play together and overcome whatever mismatches they may have.
“We’ll get an opportunity to look at it right now and I think it will show one way or another,” Van Gundy said after Thursday’s win. “Either we’re OK or we need more of a backup center. I don’t consider it a pressing problem right now because we have other problems that are pressing, like learning our offense and learning our defense. And if it’s too big a problem, we’ll play Dwight 48 minutes.”