Commentary

Howard's teammates step up, stay alive

Originally Published: April 26, 2011
By Michael Wallace | ESPN.com

ORLANDO, Fla. -- So now it officially becomes a guarantee, because Dwight Howard said so.

With the Orlando Magic down 3-1 and facing elimination entering Game 5 at the Amway Center, Howard essentially told reporters after Tuesday's shootaround that his team would be advancing.

Well, that is under one obvious condition.

"If we get one win," Howard said, "we're going to win the whole thing."

As guarantees go, that wasn't exactly Broadway Joe delivering the underdog New York Jets a victory in Super Bowl III. Howard's version was more of a definitely maybe.

He gave himself an outlet path with the "if."

But then his teammates finally gave him an outlet pass -- a much-needed assist after four games of struggles to stave off elimination with a 101-76 victory. The Magic have at least guaranteed themselves a Game 6 appearance in Atlanta on Thursday night.

For the first time in this series, Howard's words were his biggest game-day contribution. The Magic got the one victory they needed on a night when Howard made just one field goal and finished with eight points and eight rebounds in 29 minutes.

Statistically, Howard wasn't a factor for the first time in a series in which he averaged 32.3 points and 17.5 rebounds in 45.3 minutes through the first five games. From an emotional and leadership standpoint, he was still the most dominant player in the building.

After Orlando's Game 4 road loss Sunday, Howard entered the locker room and told his dejected and deflated teammates that if they didn't believe they could come back and win the series, they needed to stay in Atlanta.

And after they wrapped up preparations Tuesday morning for Game 5, he told them they couldn't lose. Howard has ranked among the league leaders in one category or another throughout his seven seasons. But outspoken leadership hasn't always been one of them.

Until now.

Magic forward Quentin Richardson said Howard's persistent trust and encouragement in his teammates when they were at their lowest point -- figuratively and literally, after setting an NBA record for futility with that 2-of-23 shooting performance from 3-point range in Game 4 -- sparked a rally even before anyone touched the court Tuesday night.

The Magic were armed with three things entering Game 5.

They knew only eight teams in NBA history had come back from a 3-1 deficit to win a best-of-seven series. They also knew that they could immediately be headed into an offseason of major changes with the roster, coaching staff and front office had the season ended Tuesday night. And they also had Howard's confidence in them.

"He showed supreme confidence in the guys in this locker room, despite what everybody else -- what it looks like and what's supposed to happen," Richardson said. "We're a faithful team. We walk by faith and not by sight. We're going to stay in our huddle and do what we're supposed to do. It was just fortunate that we were able to pick the big fella up. He's carried us the whole season, the whole series. I think we owed him at least one game to pick him up."

It also didn't hurt that the Hawks couldn't hit shots. Shooting just 36 percent from the field, which included a 4-of-14 clip from 3-point range, the Hawks were nearly as cold in Orlando as the Magic were in Atlanta the previous game.

It was far more important how the Magic won. A supporting cast that hadn't shown up for most of the series were front and center on Tuesday.

With Howard picking up his second foul and going to the bench at the 5:40 mark of the first quarter, that meant Jameer Nelson, Jason Richardson, Quentin Richardson, Ryan Anderson and J.J. Redick had no choice but to step into lead roles on the spot.

The Magic were ahead 10-9 when Howard went to the bench. By the time he re-entered the game to start the second quarter, Orlando had gone on a 16-4 run and led 26-13 after the first quarter. Redick, who missed all six of his shots in Sunday's loss, made all five of his attempts in the first quarter, when he scored 11 of his 14 points off the bench.

Quentin Richardson, who couldn't do a thing to slow Joe Johnson in Sunday's loss, grabbed four rebounds in the pivotal first quarter Tuesday and contributed to a defensive effort that hounded Johnson and Josh Smith into a combined 1-of-8 start from the field.

In the second quarter, Richardson and Ryan Anderson ignited the Magic's 3-point stroke that had been missed this series. The two made four of five attempts from beyond the arc in the second quarter, when the Magic outscored the Hawks by 10 and carried a 58-35 lead into the half.

"We just played the way we should have been playing the whole series," Howard said. "And we still have to come out and play the same way Thursday to get another win. So our work isn't done yet. We have to continue what we did tonight and stay on top of them."

There were extended stretches when Howard had the best view of anyone in the building -- from the Magic's bench as he stood and paced the sideline as his team played with more energy and passion than they have at any point in the series. Howard and Van Gundy each often got in the other's way, pumping fists, coaching and cheerleading.

Desperation does that to you.

The Magic were 11 of 26 from 3-point range on Tuesday. They were 21 of 96 from their beloved spots beyond the arc through the first five games of the series.

"This is more us than what we did for four games," Van Gundy said. "I don't think that this is some aberration, 'Oh my God, the Magic made 3s.' We've been doing this for four years. The aberration has been the first four games. I don't think there will be any celebrating. What we did was like cut the lead in a game. All we did was cut the lead from 20 to 12. We know what we're capable of."

The Magic have proved capable of overcoming series deficits before. They recite the recent examples around here like it's the national anthem. They'll point to that series two years ago against Philadelphia, when they trailed 2-1 and won it in six. Then comes the Boston example, when Orlando trailed 3-2 and won the final two games, including Game 7 on the road to get to the NBA Finals.

"For some reason, since I've been here, we've always put ourselves in situations like this," Howard said. "Whether it's the regular season or the playoffs, we've been down by a lot and have to fight our way back. Now we're in a tough situation, but we believe we can win."

Howard knows his job is to motivate and encourage as much as it is to rebound and block shots. He was unstoppable with the initial two responsibilities all day Tuesday. There wasn't a place he wouldn't turn to find an extra edge -- even if it meant creating one where one didn't exists.

"Like I told them, [Atlanta] gave us a chance, we've got to take advantage of it," Howard said. "Everybody was counting us out; they've already put the matchup with the [Chicago] Bulls and the Hawks on TNT tonight. So we have to show everybody that we're still in this."

Howard was a preacher stirring up the choir Tuesday night. He made only one basket all game, but he converted a team of believers who had doubted themselves after poor play the past few games.

"Now the pressure is on them to close out at home over there," Anderson said. "We have a ton of momentum. I know they're going to be a little nervous for us coming back over there."

Well, not quite.

"We're still in the driver's seat," Hawks guard Jamal Crawford said. "We feel like we're the better team."

If the Magic somehow managed to get their least productive game from Howard and still notch their most lopsided victory in the series, there's no reason for them to think they can't turn this thing around. That's the message Howard tried to deliver.

Then, Howard was upstaged by team owner and Amway founder Rich DeVos, who had his own rallying point for the team in the locker room before they took the court for warmups.

"He went to China [on business] the first three times and they shot him down," Howard said of DeVos' message to the team. "The last time he went, he came back with five billion dollars."

It's the kind of comeback Howard is trying to get his team to believe in.

The Magic won't get rich off this series against the Hawks.

They'll settle for getting even Thursday and forcing a Game 7 back in Orlando.