ORLANDO — Long after a recent practice, Magic center Dwight Howard lounged in the stands and chatted with team general manager Otis Smith about life.
Life in general and, more to the point, life in the NBA come playoff time.
"You're going to be held, pushed, grabbed, tugged on," Smith told his young star that afternoon. "Sorry. Your team needs you on the floor in order to be successful."
Although the Magic swept the Bobcats to advance to the second round, which begins tonight against the visiting Hawks, Howard spent too much time on the bench saddled with fouls.
Way too much time.
He averaged a mere 9.8 points — about half his regular-season average of 18.3 — in 26.5 minutes — more than eight minutes a game fewer than he played during the regular season. He fouled out of two of the four playoff games; he fouled out four times in 82 regular-season games.
Superman spent too much time as Clark Kent.
Way too much time.
Howard wrote on his blog last week that the four games against Charlotte were the "most frustrating stretch of my career" and that he doesn't see "other star players getting called for fouls the way I get them. No star player in the league is outta games the way I am."
Not league MVP LeBron James. Not Kobe Bryant. Well, the NBA answered his critique predictably enough. It tugged on Superman's cape to the tune of a $35,000 fine.
"Last series is over with," Howard said simply without a hint of anger or frustration. "I'm looking forward to the next series. And playing."
More than he had, that is, against the Bobcats.
But will he?
"I thought, especially in the last two games, his frustration level rose and it got into his head," said Magic coach Stan Van Gundy, who also was fined $35,000 for his comments in support of Howard. "That's my concern. We can look at the fouls and (tell him) not to get into wrestling matches with his arms, how to play in the restricted area. You can get into some of the technical things. He does need to take those to heart, but the big things is he just needs to continue to play his game, to play it hard, to play it smart and to not let the frustration affect how well he plays when he's on the court."
No one will be shocked if the Hawks borrow from the Bobcats' playbook. That means their big men, including former Florida star Al Horford, will try to get into Howard's head by pushing, grabbing and tugging on him in the hope he lashes out foolishly.
"I have to be aware of what other teams are trying to do," Howard said. "I can't let the ego get the best of me. … Sometimes, my teammates tell me, 'You've just got to understand, hey, they might be watching you on this play so wait 'til a couple plays later or wait 'til the next quarter.' Sometimes, I'm like, 'No. Right now.' "
That's when he's heard the whistle.
Way too much.
"I think our officials do a good job of refereeing our games this time of year, and it's a tough call," Smith said. "I don't care who you are. It's tough when all of a sudden possessions become slower, everybody's got two feet in the paint and it's hard to score. That's what the playoffs are about. Welcome. Got another round of this, it's going to be just the same. He just needs to be on the floor longer than 28 minutes. Period. That's not on the officials. That's not on Stan. That's not on (backup center) Marcin (Gortat). That's on Dwight."
Howard said he gets that.
He better. The Magic isn't likely to get to the NBA Finals for a second straight year, let alone hoist the shimmering trophy for the first time in franchise history otherwise.
While an eight-day break isn't always conducive to a team maintaining a winning rhythm, the time might help Howard steel himself emotionally and mentally for the challenges to come.
"Some things can't be avoided, and I just have to be aware of that and not allow the little things to bother me," he said. "Other than that, I'm just going to stay positive and do what I can to help my teammates. … I can't let fouls or anything make me less aggressive. I just have to fight around them."
Brian Landman can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3347.