Dwight's game, demeanor coming of age

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Dwight Howard has a grown man's body and certainly a grown-up game. But at times it's easy to forget that he's still just 23 years old and the Orlando Magic's youngest player.

Howard's tender age goes a long way toward explaining a telling moment from the Magic's first team meeting after qualifying for the NBA Finals opposite the Los Angeles Lakers.

Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy was lecturing his team on the story of Dan Marino, the legendary Miami Dolphins quarterback who made it to Super Bowl XIX early in his career and figured it was the start of several runs to football's biggest stage.

Anyone who has sat through a SportsCenter or 10 knows, of course, that Marino lost that Super Bowl in lopsided fashion (38-16) and remarkably never made it back to the big game despite enjoying a Hall of Fame career.

While some of the Magic players undoubtedly rolled their eyes at Van Gundy's recounting Marino's story, Howard sat up in his chair and listened intently. It was then that it hit many of the Magic players that Howard was hearing this story for the first time. After all, the Magic's man-child was born 11 months after Marino's infamous Super Bowl appearance in 1985.

"Coach talked about Dan Marino, how he said the first time he got to the Super Bowl, he was happy, he got caught up in being in the Super Bowl and the limelight and all that, and in the game he wasn't as focused," Howard recalled. "And Dan said the next time he gets to the Super Bowl, he's going to be more focused. But he never got back.

"So we really want to go into the Finals with the mindset that you never know what could happen," Howard said. "We could never go back again. There's no need to be happy or satisfied with just going to the Finals. We're going there to win."

Howard tells this story now because, while his well of history isn't terribly deep, it does extend back to 1995, when the Magic were but a blip in the Finals. With a dominant young center in Shaquille O'Neal and an equally promising supporting cast around him, the Magic looked like they were at the beginning of a multi-title dynasty in the mid-'90s. But they never even won a game in the 1995 Finals; instead, they were systematically picked apart by Hakeem Olajuwon and swept by the Houston Rockets.

And they were again swept out of the playoffs a season later by Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls. That set in motion a series of events -- O'Neal bolted for the Lakers and Penny Hardaway hurt his knee -- that sent the Magic tumbling into a devastating 13-year tailspin.

It all started to turn for the franchise again when Howard was chosen with the first pick of the 2004 NBA draft. The Magic were one of the league's worst teams, on and off the court, at the time, having just endured an unsightly 21-61 season, Tracy McGrady's demanding a trade out of Orlando, and the reign of terror from hockey-player-turned-NBA-exec John Weisbrod.

Slowly, Howard's game caught up to his enormous physical gifts and his blossoming body, and the Magic began to establish themselves in the Eastern Conference. He had the Magic in the playoffs by his third season, had them in the second round by his fourth and now in the NBA Finals in his fifth.

After surviving a tough six-game series against Philadelphia in Round 1, winning a clutch Game 7 in Boston in the semifinals and vanquishing the LeBron James-led Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals, Howard was overcome with emotion near the end of last Saturday night's clincher. Thinking back to just how far the franchise had come -- largely by riding his bulbous shoulders -- Howard had to hide his eyes as the tears flowed down his face.

"I can remember coming to games and nobody is in the stands until we play Kobe [Bryant] or LeBron. Now, the stands are always filled up," Howard said. "I think we've started to bring back some magic in Orlando, and that's one of the goals I set out to do when I first got here. We were a laughingstock around the league [back in 2004]. Everybody played the Magic and they thought about Disney World. I just wanted to change that. We as a team wanted to change that. I think we've done it."

To help the Magic win the ultimate prize, the Magic will have to accomplish a feat no other NBA team ever has. If Orlando can beat the 65-win Lakers -- and few are giving them a chance to do so -- it would become the first team ever to vanquish three 60-win teams in one playoffs. The Magic have already beaten the 62-win Celtics and the 66-win Cavs, but the Lakers present a far greater task.

Whereas Boston had Paul Pierce and Cleveland had LeBron, neither had very much dependable help. The Lakers, however, have the game's deepest team. They have the ultimate closer in Bryant and a big front line that will send bodies at Howard in waves.

But the Magic's 6-foot-11, 268-pound center sounds like a player possessed now. He said the feeling in the Magic locker room is that if they play their game, no one can beat them -- L.A included.

Orlando proved as much during the regular season, beating the mighty Lakers twice for the first series sweep against L.A. in the Magic's 20-year history. And the Magic have won at the Staples Center each of the past two years, so playing in front of Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio and Denzel Washington shouldn't leave them starstruck.

Still, Howard knows that Orlando is being given little chance nationally. And that's just the way he likes it. He might be the biggest, baddest guy on the court, but he actually likes playing the role of the 98-pound weakling.

"Every series that we've been in since the first round against Philadelphia, we've been considered the underdog," he said. "That's fine with us. We've been the underdog all year. Our job is to just go play. The only way that you gain respect is by winning, and that's our plan."

Those ads depicting Bryant and James characters are downright hilarious, and Howard even had the Magic locker room in stitches recently when he was imitating the voices from the commercials. Howard is a master of many voices, and can do dead-on impersonations of everyone from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Van Gundy.

But deep down, the national obsession with seeing Kobe and LeBron square off in the Finals was no laughing matter to Howard and the Magic. They were insulted by the wall-to-wall commercials and commentators pining for a Kobe-LeBron Finals. Howard, on his personal blog on his Web site, wrote that it was "disrespectful," and Van Gundy openly mocked how an Orlando team with a superstar of its own was being crushed under the LeBron-Kobe hype.

"I don't think most of the nation even knows that we're in this series," Van Gundy said midway through the Cleveland series. "I think this is the Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James' series and who they are playing against is incidental. It doesn't bother me, and I don't think it bothers our guys."

Van Gundy, of course, was lying. It bothered the Magic, and especially Howard, plenty.

When James single-handedly beat the Magic in last Thursday's Game 5 in Cleveland with 37 points, 14 rebounds and 12 assists, Howard launched into action before the series could slip away.

Maturing incrementally almost every day as a leader off the court, Howard awoke early on the morning of Game 6 and composed a motivational text message for his teammates. The overriding theme of Howard's message? "Dominate," he said.

"I knew Dwight would play great after he sent everybody that message about dominating for 48 minutes," Rashard Lewis said. "Dwight talked about the opportunity being right in front of us and it was up to us to go take it. He wanted the whole team to be dominant."

On the eve of the playoffs, Howard was deeply stung by a Sports Illustrated cover story that questioned whether he was too silly ever to win big in the NBA. As he often is with his teammates in the locker room, Howard was downright silly and teen-like during the SI photo shoot. That led the magazine to portray him simply as a big kid waltzing through the NBA who may never realize his enormous potential because of his seemingly carefree demeanor.

What Howard has done so far is just the very tip of the iceberg. I'd say he's at about 30 percent so far.

-- Magic GM Otis Smith

Howard was irate at that assumption and offered up this classic line as a rebuttal: "Ask the guys who guard me if I'm too nice."

Ask Cleveland's Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Anderson Varejao, especially after the way Howard destroyed the interior of the Cavs' defense in Saturday's clinching Game 6.

Howard, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, put up some jaw-dropping numbers this season, ranging from his nine 20-point/20-rebound games to leading the league in both rebounding (13.8) and blocked shots (2.92). But he was never better than he was Saturday night.

When Cleveland guarded him with just one defender, he ferociously attacked the rim and scored a career playoff-high 40 points. When the ball was in the air and available to everyone, he went up and corralled 14 rebounds, six of them on the offensive end. And when Cleveland did double team, he showed his maturity by passing out for four assists -- two to slashing teammates for layups and two more for momentum-swinging 3-pointers.

Said Cleveland coach Mike Brown: "Dwight was a monster out there." And then there was this from Mo Williams, who spoke Saturday in place of James: "If we didn't [double-team], Dwight probably would have averaged 80 in the series."

The ultimate praise, however, came from Van Gundy, who said: "I don't think Dwight's ever played a more patient, under-control game than that one. … He made the right decision every time."

Things haven't always been gumdrops and rainbows between Van Gundy and Howard in these playoffs.

Orlando had a meltdown of epic proportions in Game 5 against Boston, squandering a 12-point fourth-quarter lead to put itself in a 3-2 hole. And after the game, things got even messier when Howard figuratively threw Van Gundy under the bus, backed it up and ran over him again. He questioned the coach's substitution patterns and wondered how he could get just 10 shots and only two fourth-quarter touches in a game of that magnitude.

"You've got a dominant player; let him be dominant," Howard said as his usually monotone voice rose with each word.

Onlookers at that postgame news conference were shocked, having never heard Howard utter a disparaging word about a coach in such a public forum. And it should be noted that Howard's coach in his rookie season, Johnny Davis, once said that if the big man wanted the ball, he could go fetch it off the glass. Davis did not last the season.

Van Gundy was furious at the time of Howard's public criticism, and the two met the following day to hash out their differences. Usually, it is Van Gundy, a lightning rod for controversy and SportsCenter rants, who is doing the tweaking of a player.

Deep down, Van Gundy knew that there was a bit of truth to Howard's complaints about not seeing the ball enough and that he somehow had to get the ball to his star center more. That certainly hasn't been a problem since. The very next game, Howard had the fourth 20/20 postseason game of his career (23 points, 22 rebounds), and he averaged 25.8 points and 13 rebounds in six games against the Cavs.

Howard has since said that he thinks Van Gundy is the perfect coach to help him reach his enormous potential. He doesn't shy away from his ultimate goal, which is "to become the best big man to ever play the game." The sharp-tongued, hard-charging Van Gundy is just the man to push him to such heights, Howard said.

"Me and Stan have had our ups and downs, but for the most part he's done a great job motivating me and my teammates," Howard said. "He is a great motivator. Even when he is yelling and screaming, through all of that he finds a way to put in an ounce of something that fires us up.

"He's one of the best coaches I've ever had," Howard continued. "I told him when he first got here that he was going to have a soldier in me and I was going to go to battle for him. I appreciate everything he's done for me."

What Howard has done so far in his career, Magic general manager Otis Smith said, is "just the very tip of the iceberg."

"I'd say he's at about 30 percent so far," Smith said.

The way Howard played against Cleveland -- patiently passing out when double-teams came and pounding foes when they dared to cover him with one person -- is what Smith sees coming from Howard on a nightly basis in the very near future. Maturity is all he needs, the GM stressed.

"As my granddaddy used to say, 'The youth is wasted on the young,'" Smith said. "But our young fella is growing up right before our eyes."

Smith rarely sits during games, instead standing in a tunnel near one corner of the court at Amway Arena. The GM, who has masterfully surrounded Howard with shooting and slashers, often communicates with the star center through hand signals and stern looks. One second, he'll chide Howard for picking up a technical foul or swinging his elbows, and another he'll advise his big man to spin back baseline when foes cut off his drives to the middle.

Smith's focus is on these Finals, but he's just as giddy about this summer, when Howard will be in the Magic's gym all offseason. Howard has served as primarily a rebounder and a defender each of the past three summers because of his USA Basketball commitments. Now he can really work on developing an offensive arsenal to match his prodigious rebounding and shot-blocking prowess.

"It's a really big summer for him," Smith said. "When he develops that counter move, the rest of the league had better watch out. They'll be at his mercy then."

First, though, he hopes to put the Lakers at his mercy.

L.A. coach Phil Jackson has already said that he wants to try to cover Howard one-on-one to limit Orlando's 3-point shooting. It will be interesting to see how Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol absorb Howard's massive shoulders, considering the Magic's big man hung 25 points, 20 rebounds and three blocks on the Lakers back in January. (And Bynum and Gasol aren't exactly known for their grit and toughness.)

In the days leading up to Orlando's departure for the West Coast, Howard talked confidently about the upcoming series as if he knows a secret that few do. He truly believes that his Magic are the NBA's best team and that the rest of the basketball world is about to find that out.

And Howard promises that he'll be smiling throughout these Finals, knowing full well after hearing the Dan Marino story that a chance like this might never come again.

"I keep telling myself that this is just basketball and I have to make sure that I cherish the moment," Howard said. "[Teammate] Tony Battie has been in the NBA 12 years, and this is his first Finals. Nothing is promised to you, so I have to savor this and enjoy every second."

John Denton is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He covers the Orlando Magic for Florida Today.