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Howard is forced out of comfort zone

By Michael Vega
Globe Staff / May 17, 2010

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ORLANDO, Fla. — The Celtics sent wave upon wave of big bodies at Dwight Howard yesterday.

By the end of Boston’s 92-88 victory over the Magic in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, Howard, a pretty imposing specimen himself, couldn’t help but feel inundated, out of synch, and clearly frustrated with having to tangle with Kendrick Perkins, Glen Davis, and Rasheed Wallace in the low post.

Howard came prepared to box, to stick and move, to land his punches, and to score his points. But Orlando’s 6-foot-11-inch, 265-pound center wound up getting dragged into a melee.

“I just think for me, I just have to get into a good rhythm,’’ said Howard, who had 13 points on 3-for-10 shooting and 12 rebounds to record his sixth double-double of these playoffs. But he missed more shots yesterday than he did in Orlando’s second-round sweep of Atlanta, in which he averaged a team-leading 21 points, connecting on 84.4 percent of his shots (27 for 32).

“[When] I’m out of rhythm, I play like a robot,’’ said Howard, who seemed to grow frustrated when he missed his first three shots, until he got his first basket to drop on a banked jump hook with 6:15 remaining in the first quarter. “It’s just me. I have to get [into] a rhythm, find ways to get the ball, and not get into a wrestling match with those guys.

“I think that’s playing to their advantage, trying to wrestle with them and fight for position. Then they can play better defense that way.’’

While Perkins and Davis took the body, Wallace seemed to get under Howard’s skin. After he failed to convert a putback and was fouled by Wallace, Howard clamped the ball and tried to squeeze the air out of it. He walked away in frustration, retreating all the way to midcourt, before turning to head back to the foul line, where he missed the first attempt then made the second.

“They’re going to make it tough for him,’’ said the Magic’s Vince Carter. “They’re going to foul him. They’re going to be physical with him. He’s a physical presence himself. But that’s what they’re going to do.’’

Subpar shooting only served to light Howard’s fuse. It only took a skirmish with Wallace for position underneath Orlando’s basket to build into a shoving match that earned both technical fouls with 4:30 remaining in the third. On the Magic’s next possession, Howard was called for traveling, one of his seven turnovers, when he tried to wheel on Davis but wound up stumbling through the paint. As Howard vented, it led to a delay-of-game technical.

Ray Allen hit the free throw to give the Celtics a 20-point lead (65-45) with 3:49 to go in the third.

“They played great defense,’’ said Howard, who also had five blocked shots. “They made it tough for me to score. But, you know, I’m not happy with the way things happened. Now I have to go back and regroup and look at film and really focus on better ways to get position and score.’’

But as Celtics coach Doc Rivers pointed out, Howard gives his team so much more than just scoring.

He gives the Magic a dominating presence in the paint that leads to other intangibles.

“The reason he has an offensive impact is because he draws so much help,’’ Rivers said. “You have to double-team him. He gets offensive rebounds and he throws them back out for threes. So we did a good job as far as his scoring numbers, but I thought we could do a better job, quite honestly, in helping on Dwight in getting back.

“You think about the J.J. Redick drives [in the fourth quarter], those are all Dwight Howard-generated. No one wants to leave Dwight, allowing their guards to get all the way to the basket. That’s what I mean, we have to do a better job. They scored 30 points in the fourth quarter. I thought it was mostly Dwight-generated.’’

But for Howard to be a more-effective scorer, the Magic know they must help him get his numbers.

“We’re going to continue to support and stay on him to keep him — try to make sure he’s not frustrated and just play basketball and have fun,’’ Carter said. “I think he puts pressure on himself because he wants to win. He wants to be perfect or as perfect as possible and do what he has to do to lead this team because he is one, if not the captain of this team. He’s the leader. The leader trying to lead his team.

“At the same time, we tell him he’s not out there by himself. We’re going to support him. I think when he realizes that he settles down, and he did that later on in the game.’’

Michael Vega can be reached at vega@globe.com.

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