Orlando Magic players and coaches noticed a change in Dwight Howard even before the regular season started. They reported that Howard seemed more focused and more serious in practices.
Now, with 76 games in the books, the Magic realize they'd be nowhere without their superstar center.
On a night when it would've been easy to sleepwalk through four quarters, Howard strengthened his MVP candidacy by carrying his undermanned team to an 89-77 win Friday over another injury-ravaged team, the Charlotte Bobcats.
Howard scored 26 points, gathered 14 rebounds, blocked two shots and provided consistent energy as some of his teammates looked worn down.
"We expected it and, quite honestly, we need it," coach Stan Van Gundy said when asked about Howard's energy. "We absolutely need it. He stepped up and really carried us for most of the year, and that's certainly what he did tonight."
Howard made up for the absences of guards J.J. Redick, Gilbert Arenas and Chris Duhon by making 10 of his 14 shots from field. The rest of the Magic made just 35.1 percent of their shots.
No wonder many in the announced crowd of 18,969 occasionally chanted "M-V-P! M-V-P! M-V-P!" during Howard's trips to the foul line.
"You can kind of take it for granted, but us in this locker room and us on this team, we don't," said Quentin Richardson.
"We knew what Big Fella's value is, and I think he deserves as much consideration and as much talk and all of that stuff as the rest of them of guys [for MVP]. I think if he doesn't win it, he has to be a close second. I don't think Derrick Rose is as important to his team as Dwight is to us."
Howard made an impact when the Magic (48-28) needed it.
With Orlando ahead 65-60 late in the third quarter, he tipped in a teammate's missed shot as he absorbed a foul by Charlotte's Boris Diaw. Howard made the and-one, and Jason Richardson followed on the Magic's ensuing possession to extend the lead to double digits.
The Bobcats (32-43) couldn't keep up. Stephen Jackson, DeSagana Diop, Shaun Livingston, Joel Przybilla and Tyrus Thomas all missed the game because of injuries.
The Magic had only healthy four players available on their bench, and Quentin Richardson accounted for all but three of their points. Richardson also outscored all of the Bobcats' substitutes combined 14-10.
"We did our best with what we had," Charlotte point guard D.J. Augustin said.
It wasn't enough.
Howard made sure of that. Even though he's averaging more minutes now than in any other season of his pro career, he recorded his 33rd consecutive double-double, extending his own franchise record.
"I'm just trying to make sure I eat my proper foods: Honey Buns and Gatorade," Howard quipped.
The Magic lead the Atlanta Hawks for the Eastern Conference's fourth seed by four games. Both teams have six games remaining, so it would take an epic collapse by the Magic for them not to have homecourt advantage in the playoffs' first round.
Howard seems intent on not letting that happen.
"We've got to play at a higher level that what we did tonight," Van Gundy said. "We have to. We've got to start getting serious about it.
"We don't have a history together as a group to have any reason to think that we can flip the switch," he added. "That's absolutely faulty thinking. If that's where we are, that will lead to our demise."
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