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Shaun Powell

Dwight Howard remains conspicuous by his absence -- and the Pacers are reaping the benefits.
Fernando Medina/NBAE/Getty Images

Howard's absence felt as Magic's season on the brink

Posted May 5 2012 8:08PM

ORLANDO -- The series is over, just waiting to be declared officially, and so just to make Pacers-Magic a bit more interesting, how about we play a different game?

A game of: What-if?

What if Dwight Howard's sore back, instead of needing surgery, just required an acupuncture treatment or two, along with a deep-tissue massage from a Romanian shot-putter, leaving him refreshed and ready for the Pacers in Round One? Where would the Magic be right now?

Best guess: They'd be leading 3-1, instead of trailing. They'd be going for the knockout Tuesday in Indiana. And Stan Van Gundy probably wouldn't have coached his final game in Orlando, as was likely the case Saturday.

Howard means that much to Orlando and the system. He means more to the Magic than Derrick Rose does to the Bulls, because at least the Bulls enjoyed a surprisingly solid run this season with Rose benched (though they don't look so smooth without him now). The Magic, though, orbit around Howard, like spokes in a wheel. He makes everyone better, makes everyone do their jobs easier, makes everyone and everything function.

The Pacers and Magic have played four games this series and with a bit of luck at the end of regulation and overtime Saturday, the series could be tied. Yes, tied without Howard. These teams also played four games during the season and Orlando won three, with Howard. They caused major problems for the No. 3 seed in the East, and since playoffs are all about matchups, this would've been a potential deadly one for Indiana. Do you question that, with a healthy Howard?

With Howard on the floor, Ryan Anderson wouldn't be a flicker in a fog, unable to free himself for open shots. Anderson was the league leader in 3-point shots taken and made, and also the freshly-minted Most Improved Player. And yet, for a guy who makes his living from long distance, playing without Howard is like playing without your sneakers. Anderson is averaging nine points, seven below his season average, on 32 percent shooting. He's lost.

It's not just Anderson, either. With Howard on the floor, every three-point shooter on the team feels empowered. Jameer Nelson, Hedo Turkoglu, Jason Richardson, J.J. Redick, they all feast on open looks and spread any defense supermodel-thin. Yet they shot nine-for-29 beyond the arc Saturday, typical for them in this series, and you can guess why.

"Our mindset and approach against them would be different," admitted Pacers center Roy Hibbert, "with him on the floor. We know what he meant to them."

And what about Orlando's defense? How suffocating would the Magic be with Howard? Well, for starters, it's tough imagining David West posted up as he did repeatedly Saturday against a three-time Defensive Player of the Year. West scored 26 points mostly by getting Glen Davis in foul trouble and then beating up on Big Baby's replacement, poor Earl Clark, who normally wouldn't see two minutes off the bench. Without Howard, the Magic are scrambling to find the right combinations, always coming up short in that regard. There's a mismatch somewhere because they lack enough big bodies. Hibbert and West, in particular, are too much for Davis to handle by himself.

Also, the Pacers have destroyed the Magic on the boards the entire series, getting roughly 10 more per game.

Does one player make that much of a difference?

When that player makes all other things possible, then yes, he does.

Instead, the Magic are compensating the best they can as they slowly head toward the steep cliff. Give them this: They have played hard for Van Gundy, for the most part in this series. Not that they have much choice.

"That's how we won Game 1," said Anderson. "That's what we can do against this team."

They rallied from 19 points down in Game 4, forced overtime, then made a deeper Indiana team use every resource possible to squeeze a 101-99 victory.

Davis said: "Every loose ball we were on, every rebound we boxed out, every defensive possession we rotated. That's playoff basketball. That's it."

A series played by two small-market teams has been deprived by crummy luck involving Howard. Specifically, it's the Magic who are being robbed of a better showing and likely a commanding lead in the best-of-seven. It's just something to remember when there's public grumblings about Howard and how the Magic might be better off shipping him elsewhere and how he's simply not worth the distraction and headache.

Because in the end, beyond the drama that diva players often create, this is a superstar-driven league. You don't win this time of year without them. They're too hard to find, harder still to please and keep, and it's nearly impossible to survive very long in the spring and summer without them.

Life without Howard would be tremendously more miserable than life with him. Just ask the Magic how they feel right now, 48 minutes from vaporizing, about to lose a series against a Pacers team they handled this season. Handled with Howard.

"You can't look for more from this group," said Anderson.

No. You. Can't.

Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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