The Boston Celtics train was running right through the Magic defense. Orlando needed a stop to stem the tide and keep it close enough even to have a tight game at the end. The 27-point lead was gone. That didn't matter. It was truly gut check time. The Magic still had a chance to win and make everything else irrelevant. Wins have a way of doing that.
Paul Pierce, he of the comparing the Magic to poodles after the Magic lost in the 2009 Finals after disposing of his Celtics in seven games in the second round of the Playoffs, was barking and cajoling on as a player with confidence and swagger does.
He dribbled right into the jaws of the Magic defense, getting by Hedo Turkoglu to the rim. That is usually Dwight Howard's domain. The area where players don't come near for fear of having their shot sent back embarrassingly into their face or changed so drastically that the shot misses entirely. Pierce is a veteran though. He knows how to finish these shots. He pulled up a bit short and lofted a floater toward the rim.
Who knows if it would have actually gone in and given the Celtics a four-point lead, almost putting the game out of reach considering how poor the Magic's offense played. Dwight Howard never let fate answer that question.
Howard recklessly went after the block. The ball was on its way down, clearly, and it was one of those plays you don't mind early in the game to set a tone (you mutter under your breath how stupid it is, but you do not necessarily mind it). Late in the game? With your team struggling to score? That is a frustration move and a huge misjudgment from Howard at a critical point.
Especially after you say something like Dwight Howard said to Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald:
"You know, for me, I've done a lot of things individually, but I want a championship. All those accolades that I've got over the years, they mean a lot, but it's just different watching teams hold up that trophy and knowing how hard you have to work to get it.
"The [Celtics] have the championship mentality. It means a lot. Like I said, I like the team. They play hard and they go after it, and that's what I like.
"I told the Magic how I felt at the beginning of the year. They decided they weren't going to do anything, so I said, 'OK, I'm here. I'm going to play until I can't play no more.' You know, I don't have no problems with being here. I want to win. That’s what I told them. So as long as I’m here — as long as they keep me around — I'm going to play hard every night and try to win a championship.
"I want to win, and I want to do it different from how everybody else did it or how everybody expects me to do it. I work extremely hard to be the best."
That is all well and good. Nobody is going to argue that Howard works and plays extremely hard. But that is not what it takes alone to win a championship. If you are going to hold yourself out as the team captain, it takes a lot more. That championship mentality Howard idolizes in the Celtics starts from the top and permeates down.
And this is where Howard has struggled throughout his career, but most painfully obvious this past week. And it was more than that lapse at a critical moment going up against Paul Pierce.
Right now, Howard is not making his teammates better. Instead of taking responsibility for his struggles and his team's struggles, he pushes it on his teammates -- publicly.
At least when Stan Van Gundy says everyone sucked, he includes himself. Howard seems more to be angling his comments as an excuse for his inevitable exit.
Things got worse Friday night in that awful(,) offensive display against the Hornets. Dwight Howard got his, with 28 points and 16 rebounds. But he did not get anyone else involved. Not that they were getting themselves involved either. Howard was going at it alone Friday after a slow start of his own.
The effort prompted him to say his team needs to shape up or ship out (or perhaps he will ship out):
"It hurts me to get out there and play your hardest. I expect everybody to play the same. I'm not calling anybody out by no means because we all have to get better ... but if you don't want to be out there, don't dress up.
"If you don't want to play, stay home. People work too hard. I want to win a championship. I work too hard every night for anybody to not want to go out there and play hard. ... None of the -- whatever, trade stuff -- none of that stuff matters. Play basketball. That's why we all get paid to do this, because we love the game and it's basketball, so why not give it your all."
Again, I believe Howard is giving it his all. His effort is not something I am willing to question yet.
I also do not know what goes on behind closed doors. Maybe Howard's leadership skills are on fuller display there.
One thing we can all see though is that this week, Dwight Howard has failed his team as its leader. He has not done what he needs to do to push his team above and beyond. And if Howard is convinced his team needs a championship mentality, that has to start with him.
And no team with a championship mentality, no leader with a championship mentality, allows the kind of games Orlando had this week. The Magic had an abysmal offensive performance Monday night and posted a franchise-low 57 points (and a 60.9 offensive rating). In fact, the Magic have had three sub-100 offensive ratings in five of the last seven games. This, after being the best offensive team in the league at the beginning of the year.
Making matters worse, or perhaps keeping hope alive, is the defense has been pretty good. The Magic have given up a sub-100 offensive rating in five of the last seven games. Of course the last two, the most disappointing of the losses in this week from hell, were those two games.
Until Friday night, Howard was largely absnet from those games. Monday against the Celtics, he let Kevin Garnett and Jermaine O'Neal push him off his spot and bully him into irrelevance. Howard scored 18 points, but was 4 for 15 on field goals. The Celtics did it again to Howard, taking him completely out of the game in the second half despite scoring 16 points and grabbing 16 rebounds.
The Magic blew a 27-point lead in that game, making the second game more embarrassing than the first if that was even possible.
More than anything, these team performances are a failure on Howard to be the bedrock and fixture of the team. He is supposed to be the calming force. The one that forces defense to change their strategy because he can single-handedly keep his team in a game. That goes for both the offensive and defensive end of the floor.
That is what Howard was last year, on the floor at least. With virtually the same team, the Magic may not have been the best team but they never had embarrassing losses like this.
It falls on Howard to be the example for his team to follow and to be that calming force. Only then would he have the right to call his teammates out behind closed doors.
After watching himself get frustrated as much as any other player on the floor, he has not set an example. He furthered the devolution of the team and the collapse that came with it by continuing to complain and search for calls that may or may not have been there. He continued this struggle by missing free throws and not putting the team fully on his shoulders, picking his team up with his hard play in the process. Even Friday night, it seemed he was half there. He scored at a high rate, but it did little to inspire or energize his lifeless team.
Shaquille O'Neal has been making a lot of noise about Dwight Howard this year. Magic fans have taken offense to it. This week though has shown that O'Neal might have a point. His conclusion is wrong. Andrew Bynum is not better than Howard. But his reasoning is starting to bear out. Howard has to be a player that dominates all facets of the game at all times. And right now he is not doing that.
Until he does that, the Magic are going to play this inconsistent.
The question is, seven years into his career and with his eyes seemingly on a new destination, can Howard become that leader? Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel has already suggested that Howard is losing credibility with his teammates with one foot out the door.
At this point, that is a fair question. Especially as Howard continues to pile on his team to play harder and change their style when he is not exactly playing at the top of his game. This is not like Steve Nash still racking up a league-best and other worldly 57.2 percent assist rate.
Right now, this looks more like Tracy McGrady getting his numbers and pouring it on while awaiting the resolution of his uncertain future. McGrady was another one of those guys who could lead by example, but struggled to make his teammates better.
Howard is not playing at the MVP level he was at least year. All his raw numbers are down this year and his team's defense has suffered too.
And as Howard lashes out at his teammates and urges change there, you hope that he looks in the mirror and evaluates the job he is doing as a leader and you hope that someone in the locker room can hold him accountable for his level of play. That might be Stan Van Gundy. It might be Hedo Turkoglu. It might be Jameer Nelson.
Whoever it is, it probably does not need to be done in public except through action on the court.
This has been an extremely trying week for the Magic. A season of hope has quickly turned into a season of despair.
There is still time to turn it around. But it is going to take someone stepping up and taking ownership of the team in not allowing these embarrassing efforts to continue.
The question we all have is whether Dwight will be the one to do that or if we are grasping for straws and hoping he will stay.