CHARLOTTE, N.C. – As the final seconds ticked down, Dwight Howard was back in his familiar spot on the bench and coach Stan Van Gundy was steamed at his superstar for fouling out again.
Then the buzzer sounded and the Orlando Magic became the first team to advance in the NBA playoffs. Who needs Howard? Not these deep Magic – at least not in the first round. Vince Carter scored 21 points, Jameer Nelson added 18 and the Magic showcased their depth and pressure shot-making in a 99-90 victory over the Charlotte Bobcats on Monday night to complete a sweep of their first-round series.
Howard was held to six points in his fourth straight game in foul trouble, but the Magic never flinched to accomplish their first four-game sweep in franchise history. Orlando will face the Atlanta-Milwaukee winner in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
“If you would have told me that he would have averaged well under 30 minutes for the series and we would sweep, I would have said you’re crazy,” Van Gundy said. “I think it’s a testament to our other guys.”
Howard did grab 13 rebounds, but was limited to 23 minutes before fouling out for the second straight game. The Magic, though, got key contributions and big shots from others.
Rashard Lewis scored 17 points, Matt Barnes added 14 and Orlando held Stephen Jackson to 2-of-11 shooting to overcome Howard’s 22 fouls in the series.
“He and I got into it a little bit,” Van Gundy said about their sideline exchange in the last minute. “It wasn’t a bad argument. My point was he was in the restricted area and he’s got to jump. He’s so frustrated now that what he was trying to say is it wouldn’t matter. But, well, let’s jump and find out. What he did was give them the call.”
Tyrus Thomas scored a career playoff-high 21 points for the Bobcats, whose focus will now immediately turn to nomadic coach Larry Brown’s future with the team.
Brown, who has had 13 pro and college coaching jobs, continues to be the focus of reports for openings around the NBA, including Philadelphia, where his wife and children live.
But he repeated that he’ll only coach for Bobcats owner Michael Jordan.
“I’m not coaching anywhere but Charlotte,” Brown said. “Now am I going to go home and talk to my wife and kids? I’ll be 70 years old with two young kids. Am I going to talk to them and find out what I need to do and am I going to talk to Michael? Yeah, absolutely.”
Could that mean he’d retire or consider a front office job with another team?
“That’s hypothetical,” Brown said. “I love coaching more than anything, except my family maybe. … I’m really, personally, not ready to step down in terms of my desire to keep coaching.”
Brown was down after the six-year-old Bobcats again wilted in a close game in their first playoff appearance.
After Charlotte cut Orlando’s lead to one on Tyson Chandler’s two free throws, Mickael Pietrus hit consecutive three-pointers directly across the floor from Jordan’s seat to put the Magic ahead 83-76 with 5:47 left.
Nelson’s three-pointer less than a minute later – after Gerald Wallace missed two free throws – put it away for the Magic, whose only previous playoff sweep was a 3-0 victory over Detroit in 1996.
“They’re better,” Brown said. “They know how to play playoff basketball. We haven’t figured it out yet.”
Charlotte’s offensive woes were magnified by Howard’s long absences.
The four-time all-star’s endless foul trouble entering the game made him the focus of ribbing in the morning shootaround. Teammates told him instead of Superman, his nickname was now “Foul on You.” Howard played along in raising his arm and clenching his fist as if to call a foul.
The joking stopped when Howard was called for two fouls in 16 seconds in the first quarter, the second for tripping. He picked up his third for challenging D.J. Augustin after he had released a reverse layup that turned into a three-point play.
“It’s very tough out there,” Howard said. “There’s a lot of things I feel don’t go my way or our team’s way.”
With Howard on the bench, the Bobcats built a 38-31 lead on the strength of Thomas, who hit his first eight shots in his best performance since being acquired from Chicago in a trade-deadline deal.
Orlando cut the deficit to 45-43 at halftime and took the lead on a run that included Carter’s first made three-pointer after an 0-for-15 start to the series.
Howard was called for his fourth foul on Raymond Felton’s drive with 6:58 left in the third quarter – and stayed on the bench for nearly 10 minutes.
The Magic hung on, and it could be a while before they play again. The Hawks-Bucks series is tied 2-2.
“We’re going to be well rested,” Howard said before laughing. “I’m going to be well rested.”
NOTES: Van Gundy was hit with a third-quarter technical foul by Sean Corbin, his second of the series … With an accidental elbow and a hard foul, Magic C Marcin Gortat knocked out Pietrus (bloody nose) and Augustin (lower back contusion) within a minute. Both returned. … Orlando G and former Duke star J.J. Redick was booed constantly, a byproduct of the intense Duke-North Carolina rivalry. Howard joked they booed Redick every time he touched the ball in shootaround to get him ready. … Howard declined comment on a Yahoo! Sports report he’s dropped agent Aaron Goodwin.