Howard, who is a humble kid by the standards of NBA superstars, was sheepish after his outburst. Van Gundy played it perfectly, chalking it up to the heat of the moment after a bad loss. The two met for an hour. They cleared the air. Teammates rallied behind Howard and the coach.
But it put the pressure on Howard. If he was the self-proclaimed Big Dog, well, he damn well better play like it. And he did in Game 6 in Orlando, performing with wire-to-wire intensity in the Magic's win on their home court. His teammates got him the ball more, yes, but Howard didn't dominate in the low post. (Give Celtics center Kendrick Perkins credit; he basically shut down Howard's post game.) The center upped the rest of his game, though, grabbing a whopping 10 offensive rebounds, finishing with 23 points and 22 rebounds and was a dominating force on the defensive end.
But fans had to question if the Magic could keep up the mojo and prevail in Boston (which was 17-3 in game 7s at home). Was another collapse looming?
As it turns out, the Magic found their rhythm early, sharp-shooting from the 3-point line, which opened up driving lanes. Again, Howard did not dominate in the low post and finished with a modest 12 points (as well as 16 boards). Several of his baskets came early on high-rising thunder dunks off of terrific passes from teammates.
He blocked five shots, including a a couple by Perkins, which made the Celtics' center hesitant (at one point he missed three point-blank layups in one possession).
Howard did get the volume of shots (just 9) or touches that he had demanded a few days earlier. But he was still the Big Dog and my sense is that he learned a lesson: He can still be The Man without a lot of touches. The Magic are not going to win a championship by dumping the ball down to Howard 25 times a game. His offensive skills need more refinement. But they just might win like they did last night, as a hot-shooting, multi-faceted unit that plays better defense than they get credit for.
Most everyone sees the Cavs/Magic series, which starts Wednesday, as a mere coronation of King Lebron James. But if the Orlando club plays like it did last night, there's good reason to think that the King could be deposed.
Oh, and one final note: As a Magic fan since their inception 20 years ago, I'm delighted their moving to the next level in the playoffs, but I'm also glad that I won't have to watch Celtics star Paul Pierce flinging himself around, making like a bobblehead doll, grimacing and STILL GETTING FOUL CALLS from the refs. Here's compelling photographic evidence:
Photo: Winslow Townson, Associated Press