Denton: Back Injury Still Giving Howard Problems

By John Denton
April 12, 2012

ORLANDO – Unable to make it through an entire practice, much less suit up for a game right now, Orlando Magic superstar center Dwight Howard said on Thursday that he’s shifting his focus from seedings down the stretch to simply trying to get healthy for the playoffs.

The spasms in Howard’s lower back returned midway through Thursday’s practice and the six-time all-star said he most likely won’t play on Friday night when the Magic face the Atlanta Hawks at the Amway Center. The game could play a major role in the playoff seedings for the Eastern Conference, but Howard said curing his ailing back has to be at the forefront of his focus now.

``The only thing that matters (in the playoffs) is that we’re all healthy,’’ Howard said. ``If we’re a healthy team and we’re mentally focused on what we need to do then the seeding doesn’t matter. We just have to all get healthy. We’ve been hit from all different angles this year, but we just have to stay strong and get healthy by the time that the playoffs come. We just need to make a good run in the playoffs.’’

At 34-24, the Magic are locked in a three-way tie with Boston (34-24) and Atlanta (34-24). If Boston wins the Atlantic Division it will finish no lower than the fourth seed. The Magic, Hawks and Celtics are two games back of third-seeded Indiana (36-22), and a winning streak could quickly vault Orlando from sixth to third.

If the Magic can’t climb to the No. 3 seed – and that might be difficult with Howard’s status up in the air and six playoff teams left on the schedule – history would seem to suggest that they would be better off remaining sixth opposite the Pacers in the first round of the playoffs. Orlando whipped Indiana three times this season and the one loss came during its worst stretch of the season. Conversely, the Magic are 0-2 against both the Celtics and Hawks this season.

``Getting the three seed is more of a priority than who we play (in the first round of the playoffs),’’ Magic point guard Jameer Nelson. ``We just have to take care of what we can take care of and keep the focus on our locker room. But at the same time it would be great to get the No. 3 seed and home court (advantage).’’

The Magic will be facing an Atlanta team that has given them fits for most of the past two seasons. Atlanta won three of four from Orlando last season and beat the Magic in six games in the first round of the playoffs last April. And this season, even with all-star forward Al Horford out most of the season with an injury, the Hawks have won both meetings.

The Magic lost 89-87 in overtime on Feb. 10, but needed a furious fourth-quarter rally just to force the extra period. And in the final game before the All-Star break on Feb. 23, the Magic made just 37 percent of their shots and only seven of 32 3-pointers in an ugly 83-79 loss.

The Hawks cause the Magic offensive problems because of their size on the wings and ability to disrupt Orlando’s pick-and-roll game with their versatility. Joe Johnson (6-7), Marvin Williams (6-8) and Josh Smith (6-9) can guard multiple positions, and over the past two years they’ve bothered the Magic’s shooters.

``They switch a lot of stuff on the pick-and-roll plays, but we have to attack them and still do what we do,’’ Magic guard Jason Richardson said. ``We’ll have to keep playing inside-out and not worry so much about their switches on defense.’’

Playing inside-out will be a little more difficult without Howard in the lineup for at least the next couple of days. After missing just two games because of injury in the previous seven seasons, Howard has been out four of the last six games with the reoccurring spasms in his back.

Howard said his back was injured in a game approximately three weeks ago and aggravated on March 30 following several hard hits by Dallas center Brendan Haywood. Howard said he’s been assured there is no structural damage in the back, yet the pain has been persistent. He registered his ninth 20-point, 20-rebound game of the season (and the 41st of his career) last Saturday night in a win in Philadelphia, but Howard needed treatment throughout the second half and struggled to stand upright after the game.

Howard is somewhat worried that all of the contact that he absorbs as arguably the most physical player in the NBA is starting to take a toll on his body. He’s been going through a variety of stretching, massaging and strengthening drills over the past week, but still the pain returned midway through Thursday’s practice.

``It’s not one thing that causes it. It has to do with my whole body tightening up. But there’s nothing really that I can do now other than stretch, get massages and do what I can so that it won’t happen again,’’ he said. ``But I don’t want to go out there until I’m 100 percent. My team needs me to be 100 percent and not out there at 60 or 70 percent.

``I just have to stay on top of it,’’ Howard continued. ``The way that I play it was bound to happen. Not major back problems, but being in the post you get hit in the back a lot. I’m a physical player, so a lot of players hit me in my back a lot. Somebody who jumps a lot, after a while it starts to wear on their body.’’

Howard is confident that will rest his back will be fully healed by the start of the playoffs on April 28. If he is unable to play much in the final two weeks of the regular season the Magic might slip in the seedings, but Howard stressed that Magic’s health is most important when the postseason rolls around.

``I have to do all of the things to take care of the rest of my body so that my back is strong,’’ he said. ``It’s day-to-day right now. Some days it feels better than others. There’s really nothing I can do about it but continue to do all of the things in the training room. I’m doing extra work at home, but I have to stay on top of this and not let it get bad.’’

John Denton writes for OrlandoMagic.com. John has covered the Magic since 1997 and recently authored ``All You Can Be’’ with Magic center Dwight Howard. E-mail John at jd41898@aol.com

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