Commentary

Howard's non-touches were key

Originally Published: May 14, 2009
By Chris Sheridan | ESPN.com

Dwight HowardSam Greenwood/Getty ImagesAfter talking the talk, Howard walked the walk in leading the Magic to a win in Game 6.

ORLANDO -- Dwight Howard's biggest touch of the game was a non-touch. At least that's the way I saw it, so I took my premise straight to Howard's locker and bounced it off him when he came out of the shower.

The play came right after Howard checked back in with 7:37 remaining in the fourth quarter. Ray Allen drove the lane and saw the Defensive Player of the Year standing between him and the basket, and he hesitated.

"Yeah, he did one of these," Howard said, motioning as though he were double-clutching upon releasing a shot -- just as Allen had done.

Allen ended up having to put several extra inches of arc on the ball to get it over Howard -- a play known in stat-geek circles as an altered shot -- and the attempt missed. Howard then grabbed one of his dozen defensive rebounds, leading to a transition bucket by Courtney Lee that boosted Orlando's lead to three. He never laid a finger on the ball, but I offered it up for consideration as Howard's biggest touch or non-touch of the game.

"Yeah, that's fair," Howard said.

In the 48 hours that elapsed between Howard's postgame rant against coach Stan Van Gundy and the end of Game 6, the talking points relating to Howard's rant took a sideways turn. Yes, it was duly noted that Howard had touched the ball only once on an offensive possession over the final 5½ minutes, but what faded into the background was the point Howard was trying to make: "You have to let a dominant player be dominant."

Well, Howard was dominant in Orlando's 83-75 victory Thursday night that sent the Magic back to Boston for a Game 7 on Sunday. But he wasn't dominant because of offensive touches. In fact, Van Gundy noted, the Magic probably ran even fewer set plays for Howard in the low block than they had in the previous game.

Howard scored only one point, missed three of four free throws and was not credited with a field goal attempt in the entire fourth quarter. But he was still dominant -- not only on that altered shot by Allen but also on a subsequent play that was probably equally huge.

On this one, Howard got a touch. But it was a touch with his body -- and a hard touch at that -- that came as he set a screen on Paul Pierce near the 3-point line with 1:25 remaining and the Magic still clinging to a three-point lead. The screen gave Hedo Turkoglu (3-for-13) enough room to get off one of his few uncontested shots of the night, and the 3-pointer make it 81-75 for the Magic.

The Celtics called timeout, threw away the ensuing inbounds pass, and that was pretty much the ballgame -- setting up one more of them, a Game 7 Sunday night in Boston at the new Garden.

Howard finished with 23 points, 22 rebounds and three blocks -- about as dominant a line as one can have without having a dominant offensive fourth quarter. His biggest contributions over the final 12 -- other than the aforementioned altered shot and perfect screen -- were his five rebounds.

Of Howard's 16 shot attempts, they broke down as follows: On tips, he was 4-for-6. On alley-oops, he was 1-for-1. On pick-and-roll finishes, he was 1-for-1. On dunks off loose balls, he was 1-for-1.

On plays where he was fed the ball in the low post in the half-court offense, he was 2-for-6. On jumpers, he was 0-for-1.

ESPN researchers logged 39 touches for Howard in Game 6 versus 22 in Game 5. But touches, especially touches in half-court sets, are overrated in terms of being something the Magic need to have in order to win.

Effort and energy plays? Defensive intensity and presence on the boards? Scoring when he's on the move instead of standing still? Those are the difference-makers for Howard, which were the main points Van Gundy made in a private meeting with Howard -- points that were driven home by other members of Orlando's hierarchy over the course of Thursday and Friday.

"When Dwight is playing with energy and effort, really maximizing his athletic gifts, he's just difficult to play," Van Gundy said. "It didn't look to me like he put pressure on himself. He knew he had to come and make a great effort -- and not just because of comments he made. Tonight had very little to do with his comments and an awful lot to do with the fact that he feels responsibility for this team to advance. He badly, badly, badly wanted to get this done, and when that doesn't happen he boils over."

It was with great glee that Van Gundy remarked that Howard had boiled over favorably this time, but it didn't match the mirth with which he complimented his team as a whole -- and himself in a backhanded way -- after Orlando outscored Boston 22-13 in a pivotal fourth quarter that began with the Celtics ahead by two. Showing the difference in aggression between the two teams (or an odd discrepancy, which is what it seemed like to Boston coach Doc Rivers), Orlando went to the line 14 times in the final stanza to Boston's two.

"With a coach who panics like I do, it's hard to understand how guys can get the job done and fight their way through it," Van Gundy said. "But there is no bounce-back if you don't get it back in Game 7."

So the Celtics will be back where they have now been four times over this postseason and last, playing a Game 7 in their own building, bringing in an all-time franchise record of 17-3 in Game 7s at home.

A worse omen for Orlando: Boston is 32-0 all-time in series in which it has led 3-2.

"There are a lot of things that have never happened before until somebody does them," Van Gundy said, adding one of his more cryptic comments: "Generally in these Game 7s, the veteran team has the advantage, not the younger one."

Boston's most important veteran Kevin Garnett, is out for the remainder of the postseason with a sore knee ligament (unless, of course, Doc Rivers' pre-playoff admission that there's a 1 percent chance Garnett will play still holds true), and many of the key cogs from last season's championship run are injured (Leon Powe), have gone elsewhere (James Posey) or retired (P.J. Brown). The Celtics are getting little from Ray Allen (2-for-11 Thursday) and are relying heavily on Brian Scalabrine (a towel-waver at this time a year ago) and Glen Davis (a neophyte 12 months ago) while keeping their fingers crossed that they'll catch lightning in a bottle from someone as they did in Game 2 with Eddie House and in Game 5 with Stephon Marbury.

A toss-up Game 7? You'd have to believe so.

But the X factor may come down to how effective Howard is going to be as a defensive presence, a rebounding machine and as a player who can get his points without being force-fed his touches.

And he realizes that now.

"Biggest lesson?" Howard said, repeating my question of what he had learned in the span of 48 hours. "Keep my mouth shut. If I have issues, go into coach's office, we're both men. I can't let my frustration stop me from being who I am as a person."

Or as a player -- a player whose touches can come in many different forms, and whose non-touches, such as the altered shot on Allen or the screen that freed Turkoglu, can be game-changers.

Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Sheridan, click here.