Dwight Howard sat on a chair in front of his locker and plopped his son, Braylon, onto his lap. The 2-year-old was wearing a blue shirt with the Superman emblem stamped on the chest.
Statement? Hardly. The big man did that on the court.
Howard had 22 points and 16 rebounds in a bruising battle with Shaquille O'Neal, and the Orlando Magic beat Cleveland 101-95 on Sunday for the Cavaliers' first three-game losing streak in two years.
“He's a big load,” Howard said of O'Neil, who had taken offense recently to Howard being called Superman. “You just got to get in there and fight him. You got to get out there and wrestle with him. You got to make him work.”
They both did plenty of that.
Howard was 8-for-13 shooting and added four blocks, and Vince Carter had eight of his 11 points in the fourth quarter to help the Magic beat Cleveland for the first time this season.
O'Neal made his first eight shots and finished with 20 points, and LeBron James had 33 points and nine rebounds for the Cavaliers, who were eliminated by Orlando in last year's Eastern Conference finals.
“Dwight is one of the only true big men left. I'm sure he doesn't mind a little bit of physicality,” said O'Neal, who avoided any verbal jabs at Howard after this one. “I darn sure don't mind it. Two big, strong guys. Old ball, young ball going at it. Fun game to watch.”
Stayed tuned. Might be plenty more matchups this season.
Although the Cavaliers' losing skid — all since acquiring Antawn Jamison from Washington — comes on the heels of a 13-game winning streak, they still lead Orlando by five games. And with the Magic starting to play their best basketball, a conference finals rematch might be in store.
“We play the way we're playing, they play the way they're playing, we'll eventually meet,” Howard said.
The hoopla surrounding the Howard-Shaq squabble over the Superman nickname finally lived up to the billing, and for a February game it sure felt like June.
Carter made a two-handed dunk over heavy traffic, and followed that with a layup over Jamison, pumping his fist to the crowd in celebration. Jameer Nelson came back with a 3-pointer to put the Magic ahead 96-88 with about 2 minutes left.
O'Neal tipped in a missed shot, and Anthony Parker made a 3-pointer to trim the deficit to three. But after James missed a 3-pointer on Cleveland's next possession, Rashard Lewis made a 3 — from the same spot where he sent the Game 6 clincher into overtime last year — with 20.1 seconds remaining to seal the Magic's win.
Jamison, acquired from Washington earlier this week, had 19 points — after starting his Cleveland career 0 for 12 — but still doesn't know what it feels like to win with his new team.
“I think Antawn is really going to benefit us, we are just going through a little transition period right now trying to figure out lineups and figuring out certain sets,” James said.
Until the last few minutes, though, it was Superman vs. Superman.
O'Neal has been known as the comic book superhero for most of his 17-year NBA career, and he had taken exception with Howard getting the same nickname. It didn't help that Howard has erased much of O'Neal's shadow in Orlando — where he spent four years in the mid-90s — and has restored the Magic to prominence.
“I am not concerned with that,” said O'Neal, who has called Howard an “impostor” among other things. “When I am done playing, I will have four, five or six (titles). I am not concerned with useless titles.”
He'll also be remembered for putting on quite a show.
O'Neal grabbed a rebound and caught Howard under the basket, hammering a powerful one-handed dunk over the young center in the opening quarter. Shaq added a put-back dunk, an alley-oop tip and a three-point play over Howard all before the half.
At the other end of the floor, Howard used his youth and agility to wiggle around O'Neal almost at will, slicing through the paint for layups and hook shots and making the elder center sprint down the court. Howard also banked a jumpshot from the wing and his defensive presence helped Orlando go ahead 46-35 late in the second quarter.
“I don't think he smiled tonight so that should make everybody happy,” said Magic coach Stan Van Gundy, referring to how some perceive Howard as a happy-go-luck center. “He's playing as well as anybody in the league.”
And suddenly, so are the Magic.
“Sometimes people do forget that we're the defending Eastern Conference champions,” Lewis said. “That's OK. We just got to keep playing hard, because we know we might see them again.”
NOTES: Gina Marie Incandela sang the national anthem, the same 7-year-old girl the Magic had perform for most of their surprising NBA finals run last season. Orlando was 7-0 when she sang until losing consecutive home games to the Los Angeles Lakers in the finals. … Howard and O'Neal bumped fists before the opening tip.
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