- Michael Wallace, ESPN.com
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ORLANDO -- The team executive entered the postgame news conference room at the Amway Center late Tuesday night with what essentially was a public service announcement.
"Hey guys," Orlando Magic media relations chief Joel Glass said, "Dwight's going to be a while."
Most reporters in the room shrugged. There was nothing new about that statement. It's the way it is after most Orlando games. Everyone knows that Magic center Dwight Howard is incredibly quick to rebound a basketball or block a shot, but he's notoriously one of the slowest players in the league when it comes to showering, dressing and addressing the media after games.
Sensing the indifference in the room, Glass clarified his initial update.
"A while, meaning a little longer than usual," Glass said.
By the time Howard walked in nearly 90 minutes after Orlando completed its 88-82 victory over the Atlanta Hawks in Game 2 to even the best-of-seven playoff series, it was obvious the weight of the franchise -- both its present and future -- were squarely resting on his massive shoulders.
After logging the entire 48 minutes, those shoulders atop that 6-foot-10, 270-pound frame required extensive treatment Tuesday night. So did Howard's legs, knees, back and arms -- all of which were submerged in ice after his work was done.
Ali emerged from some of those slugfests with Frazier having absorbed less of a pounding than what Howard has taken the past two games. The difference is Dwight can't fight back -- not literally, at least.
"I don't think people understand it," Howard said as he leaned over a table, fighting off exhaustion, when asked if anyone could realistically comprehend the burden he carries. "But I just continue to go out there and do what I can to help my team win. I have to do a lot for my team. They do a lot for me. It goes both ways. I understand how important it is for me to come out and play as hard as I can."
After giving his team a playoff career-high 46 points and 19 rebounds in Saturday's Game 1 loss, Howard came back with another career first by playing from start to finish in a playoff game without leaving the floor for rest. And in the process, he left no doubt as to how vital he is to this team.
Howard set or tied three more franchise records Tuesday on the way to collecting 33 points and 19 rebounds without as many as two seconds to catch his breath. In most lines of work, there are labor laws that prevent employers from abusing employees with this level of a workload.
With the Magic, it's just another day at the office for Howard. But there are times when punching this sort of time card takes a heavy toll on Howard, who has been hounded and pounded on the way to 41 free-throw attempts through two games in this series.
For two games, the Hawks' game plan has been simple. They don't double-team Howard. Instead, they send a steady diet of rugged, physical centers at him. When Jason Collins gets in foul trouble, no problem. Send in Zaza Pachulia. When Zaza picks up two quick whistles for sumo-wrestling with Howard, that's OK. Here comes Josh Powell and his disposable six fouls. If that's not enough, no sweat. Hilton Armstrong shakes off the rigor mortis and heads to the scorer's table. And who knew Etan Thomas was still in the league?
The Hawks have a buffet of bigs to throw at Howard relentlessly.
So, it's not as if Howard doesn't need an occasional blow, like most humans.
He simply can't afford them. And it wasn't as if Howard could get a few extra moments off his feet during the pregame introductions. He had to stand up and pose for photos while receiving his third consecutive NBA defensive player of the year trophy after warmups.
"I didn't ask for a break or anything," Howard said. "I just told coach [Stan Van Gundy], 'If I get tired, call a timeout. And he said, um, well, he really didn't say anything. He kept asking me if I wanted to come out of the game, and I said I wanted to keep playing."
And playing. And playing.
"I just felt like I needed to be on the floor," said Howard, who then repeated himself for impact. "I needed to be on the floor. It's tough. But you can't think about [fatigue] while you're on the court. You can't think about anything like that while you're playing. Just fight through it. That's what I try to do. As much as I get hit and beat on in the game, I just think about what we're trying to accomplish here."
Howard's 24 points and 11 rebounds in the first half would have been an entire breakout game for 90 percent of the centers in the league. But for Howard, he was just getting warm.
"That's why they gave him that trophy before the game," Van Gundy said. "He was phenomenal tonight. I mean, he was really phenomenal. Just the energy itself that he put into the game. I'm not even talking about the numbers. I mean, the 33 and 19 are great. You can fault his seven turnovers. But what he put into the game for 48 minutes, in a game of that intensity, that's incredible. I'm sure he's glad we have two days between [games] right here."
If Howard is happy about the time off before the series shifts to Atlanta for Game 3 on Friday, he won't show it. Just like he's trying to conceal the shoulder injury he either sustained or aggravated in the first half of Tuesday's game. Howard spent time with a trainer before the start of the second half having an ointment rubbed into his right shoulder.
I don't know how he does it. To tell you the truth, that's why they call him Superman.
”-- Jason Richardson on Dwight Howard
After the game, when approached privately about the extent of his shoulder issue, Howard simply said: "I'll be all right. But thanks for asking."
Teammates don't take Howard's presence for granted. But they've seen so many of his near wire-to-wire acts in games that they almost seem routine. And Howard tries to shield them from his mortality.
"I don't know how he does it," guard Jason Richardson said. "To tell you the truth, that's why they call him Superman. To be a big guy like that and just take beatings night in and night out, guys just fouling you, hacking you without even trying to play defense really, it's gotta take a toll on your body. But he does a great job going out there and keeping his composure and getting buckets for us."
There are times when it's obvious that the Magic's roster fails Howard. Twice in the past three seasons, Howard has guided Orlando to at least the conference finals only to see the roster shaken up around him. The Magic advanced to the NBA Finals in 2009 and didn't re-sign Hedo Turkoglu and traded starting shooting guard Courtney Lee.
And midway through this season, long after losing to Boston in the conference finals last season, the team shipped out backup center Marcin Gortat, perimeter defender Mickael Pietrus, Vince Carter and second-leading scorer Rashard Lewis.
What Orlando got in return were players that have yet to convince anyone that they're better suited to get this team farther in the postseason than the ones who were traded away. And just like with the shoulder pain, playing 48 minutes without a breather or the burden of carrying the franchise on his back, Howard doesn't publicly complain.
He doesn't ask for a break.
Not even in times like Tuesday, when you wonder how long can he do this without breaking down.
But that's when Howard finally perked up late Tuesday night -- or was it Wednesday morning by then?
"Like I tell everybody -- I'll sleep when I die," Howard joked. "That's when I'll take my rest -- as soon as they put me under the ground. So until then, while I'm on earth, I'll put in work."
Then Howard summoned the energy and the smile for which he's known and grabbed the bottle of sports drink positioned in front of him at the table.
"So if I have to play 48 minutes [again], I'll play 48 minutes," Howard said as he held the drink he endorses in commercials. "That's why they make these Gatorades."
It was a fitting end to Howard's night.
The work never stops.
Dwight Howard went the distance for the Magic in their series-tying win over the Hawks.