Denton: Howard Says Celtics Are Magic's Biggest Rival

By John Denton
February 5, 2011


BOSTON – Earlier in the week when the Miami Heat were in Orlando preparing for a showdown against the Magic, center Dwight Howard was peppered with questions about the rivalry with their Sunshine State neighbors to the south.

It made sense, after all, with the Heat and Magic both being among the Eastern Conference elite now and simultaneously sharing the spotlight in Florida with their star-studded rosters.

But Howard shot down the Heat hatred and Miami rivalry talk, insisting instead that it was the Boston Celtics as the team that he most dislikes and wants to beat. Now, that, Howard insisted, is a true rivalry forged over playoff battles and a general disdain for one another.

``I think we have much more of a rivalry with Boston, so we don’t really look at Miami as a rival,’’ Howard said earlier in the week. ``We go back and forth with the Celtics because they are always trying to get into our heads.’’

Orlando (32-19) and Boston (37-12) have knocked heads and trash-talked one another each of the past two springs, and ultimately decided which team makes it to the NBA Finals. Orlando won an epic second-round Game 7 in Boston in 2009 to vanquish the defending-champion Celtics. Then, last May, Boston jumped to a 3-0 lead against Orlando in the Eastern Conference Finals, and survived 4-2 in the series to reach the NBA Finals.

So far this season, the Magic and Celtics have produced two made-for-television dramas that lived up to their billing. By the time Sunday’s game is complete, the Magic and Celtics will have played on Christmas Day, Martin Luther King Day and Super Bowl Sunday. It’s no coincidence that the dislike and vitriol between these two teams makes for soap opera-worthy drama and the national TV cameras will be around to have broadcast all three games.

On Christmas Day in Orlando, the Magic opened with a 13-0 start and closed the game with a 15-1 run to steal a victory against the Celtics. And three weeks ago in Boston as TNT’s marquee game on Martin Luther King Day, the Celtics had a closing kick in the final minute to win one of the season’s most compelling games.

Now, Round 3 comes on one of the biggest sporting days in America and as a tune-up to the Packers-Steelers Super Bowl in suburban Dallas.

``I’m pretty sure that our game will be the warm-up game for a lot of people getting ready for the Super Bowl,’’ Magic point guard Jameer Nelson said. ``I’m sure a lot of people will be watching and it should be fun again.’’

Fun, of course, because of the mutual dislike between these two teams. More so than any team, the Celtics talk trash and try to play the role of bullies, Howard said. He chuckled at how Glen Davis has said through the media that the Magic star is easy to guard in the post. It’s the same sort of sentiment that Kendrick Perkins has said in the past. It should be noted, of course, that Howard hung 33 points on the Celtics three weeks ago and generally scored at will.

``It really doesn’t bother me at all. I’ll just continue to play and I don’t really see the need to talk trash like they do through the media,’’ Howard said. ``If they have something to say I’d rather they say it to the person. I don’t get into all of the talking like they do.

``(Trash-talking) is one of the ways that they always try to get into our heads,’’ Howard said. ``They’re always trying to find a way to frustrate me because they think if I’m frustrated my whole team will be the same way. We can get drawn into that and we have to keep a level head against them.’’

Nelson, a Magic co-captain along with Howard, compares the Celtics of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, to the Pistons teams of Rasheed Wallace, Richard Hamilton and Chauncey Billups, who were thorns in Orlando’s sides as recently as five years ago. That group used to thrive on trying to frustrate the Magic – much like the modern-day Celtics.

``It’s just like Detroit used to try to do us a few years ago, talking and trying to bully us. But we know how to play and we don’t let that affect us. They’re not going to get into our heads,’’ Nelson said. ``You’ve got to be ready from the beginning against that team, no matter where you play them because they try to knock you out from the beginning.’’

More so than concerning himself with the grudge match, Magic coach Stan Van Gundy has his sights on Boston as the leaders of the Eastern Conference. He marvels at the consistency that the Celtics have played with this season and admits that they are the team to beat in the East right now. But before the playoffs, Van Gundy wants his re-tooled Magic to win Sunday to capture the season series and hopefully begin a push to close the six-game gap in the standings.

``I hope we’re going to get there, but right now Boston and Miami have separated themselves,’’ Van Gundy said. ``Then, Chicago has a pretty significant advantage on us and Atlanta, so there is some separation. I’m just being honest, but I think we can get there in 10 weeks – I really do. But you can’t say right now that we’re there with those teams. The one thing I’ve always believed in this league is that you are what your record says you are. Right now, (32-19) that’s who we are.’’

John Denton writes for OrlandoMagic.com. E-mail John at jd41898@aol.com. Submit a question to John for his mailbag segment at AskJD@orlandomagic.com.