By Tim Povtak, Special to NBA.com
Posted Jan 23 2009 5:51AM
ORLANDO -- Not so fast, Superman. Your work still isn't done.
Dwight Howard returned this week all aglow from his trip to Washington D.C. and the Obama inauguration -- announced that he, too, wanted to be president one day -- but he received a rude awakening on the basketball court.
His Orlando Magic may have been the hottest team in the league, but they still aren't the best.
The Boston Celtics just slapped them in the face Thursday night, 90-80, letting them know that big games like this require big-time performances. It's a lesson the Magic should heed if they want to stay among the league's elite through the second half of the season.
Howard has become the first player in league history to collect more than three million All-Star votes, and he encourages the Superman nickname he gave himself, but the Celtics virtually cut off his cape Thursday night.
He had just 11 points and 11 rebounds before fouling out with 2:30 remaining, and his team never seriously challenging the champs.
In what was supposed to be a "statement game,'' for the Magic -- announcing their arrival as a serious contender -- it was the Celtics who re-established themselves with a commanding presence.
"Every game is like a statement game for us,'' said Celtics star Paul Pierce. "Whether it's the Magic, or the worst team in the NBA, we come to play every night. We tried to make it uncomfortable for Dwight around the basket.''
Pierce had a game-high 27 points and 10 rebounds, leading his team to this seven-game winning streak and leaving behind their earlier slump that gave teams like Orlando and Cleveland hope of closing the gap.
The Celtics (36-9) again have the best record in Eastern Conference. They forced the Magic out of their comfort zone offensively, holding them to a season low 80 points. At the other end, they forced their will on the Magic with Pierce and Kevin Garnett moving as they pleased around the court.
The Magic came into the game riding a wave of confidence, a seven-game winning streak and an impressive inside/outside combination of Howard around the basket and an array of 3-point shooters.
The Magic just finished a breeze through the Western Conference, beating the Spurs, Lakers and Nuggets -- leaders of their respective divisions -- in a seven-day span. As good as they had looked out West, they looked as rusty and unprepared for the defensive intensity the Celtics brought to the game Thursday.
Magic forward Rashard Lewis was so hyped to play against Kevin Garnett that he looked like a pinball early in the game, corralling seven offensive rebounds in the first period, keeping the Magic close despite some uncharacteristically poor shooting.
Lewis was a little too anxious, though, at the end of the period when he fouled Brian Scalabrine in the act of shooting behind the 3-point line, giving the journeyman more credit than he probably deserved.
Little went right early for the Magic throughout the night. It got so bad that Boston's Rajon Rondo (6-foot-1) won a jump ball against Lewis (6-foot-10). The Magic frustration started simmering midway in the third period when Howard and Hedo Turkoglu pointed angry fingers at one another, each blaming the other when Pierce drove for an uncontested dunk.
The Magic may have been leading the league in 3-point percentage (40.3 percent) and 3-pointers made (430), but they couldn't find the range Thursday, making only seven of 22. The Celtics also shut down Howard around the basket without needing to double team him very often.
"This is the way we always play,'' said Celtics guard Ray Allen. "The way we approach defense, we try and make our opponent uncomfortable. They have probably the best collection of shooters in the league, but you have to get them away from what they like to do.''
A minute before the start of the second half -- with his team trailing by eight -- Howard was clowning on the sideline with a television camerman while his team was warming up. He playfully greeted Celtics assistant coach Clifford Ray, inspecting and critiquing the tie he was wearing.
Although he was didn't seem too concerned, it was obvious by halftime that the Celtics had the upper hand in this matchup. The Celtics already had beaten the Magic earlier in Boston, but this one was more impressive. They had won the night before in Miami, while the Magic had rested.
"We know we're good, even though we lost this game,'' said Magic guard Jameer Nelson. "And I'm quite sure they know we're good. But they are a really good team. They won a championship last year. And we want to get where they are. We can take something from a game like this. We can go back to work.''
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