In the third quarter of Monday night’s Celtics victory , as Howard attempted to establish position in the paint and bumped O’Neal on the block, the latter stuck his finger in the former’s face and voiced his displeasure. The two bigs at dichotomous points in their careers were separated by teammates and each assessed technicals.
“That’s kind of crossing the line when somebody puts their hand in your face,” said Howard (18 points, 14 rebounds), who had four of his team’s NBA record low 16 field goals in the 87-56 loss. “I just put his hand out of my face. I didn’t run up on him. It’s basketball. We’re not MMA fighters. I don’t know why I got a tech, but I’m cool.”
O’Neal (6), Greg Stiemsma  (5), Brandon Bass  (4) and Kevin Garnett  (2) combined for 17 personal fouls, sending Howard to the line 18 times (he made 10) in an attempt to minimize his sizable impact.
‘You’re at his mercy to be honest,” said Garnett, who totaled 14 points, 10 rebounds, five steals and two blocks. “You have to do what we call dirty work early, which is to try to take him off his sweet spots, contest his shots. He’s strong, he’s very powerful and explosive. You’re at his mercy, man, seriously. I’m not about to sit up here in front of the cameras and give y’all defensive schemes and secrets, but different ways you play different guys.”
Whatever the game plan, it worked. Howard had all four of his field goals and 12 of his 18 points in a first quarter that ended with the Celtics clinging to a 22-20 lead. For the rest of the evening, the four-time First Team All-NBA center finished 0-for-9 from the field as the lead swelled to as much as 33 points.
“They’ve been a great team in the past, but I don’t think we came out as a team with the right attitude and the right energy,” said Howard, whose Magic fell to 11-5. “They just came out and played. Even myself, there’s no way KG [Kevin Garnett] should be beating me up and down the floor. There was a couple plays where he beat me up and down the floor. There’s no way. He’s 40, and I’m 25. I just can’t allow that to happen.”
For the record, Garnett is 35. All this isn’t to say Howard lost respect for these aging C’s. In fact, just the opposite.
“A couple years ago — even to this day — we look up to a team like Boston because of the way they play together, how they are off the court,” added Howard. “It’s good. They went back to playing Boston basketball tonight. Everybody touched the ball, they ran, they played aggressive on both ends of the floor. That’s what you ask from a championship organization, and that’s what we’re trying to build here in Orlando.”
Whether or not that respect benefits the Celtics if and when Howard reaches free agency, who knows? Howard’s future has and will continue to be the subject of much debate throughout this season.The Nets  and Lakers appear the most likely trade destinations, with the Magic netting Brook Lopez  or Andrew Bynum  in return. That interest seems mutual with Howard, who has never expressed interest in Boston as a potential landing destination.
The likelihood of Howard ending up on the Lakers or Nets via trade is dwindling by the day. In the Eastern Conference, the Bulls and Heat both have stars in Derrick Rose  (toe) and Dwyane Wade  (ankle) nursing lingering injuries. The young 76ers and Pacers aren’t likely to make such an enormous leap. The Hawks are the Hawks, and the Celtics are struggling to play .500 basketball. So who’s to say the Magic won’t be buyers at the trade deadline in hopes of reaching a second NBA Finals  in four years and convincing Howard to stay?
Magic GM Otis Smith knows Howard has $30.3 million reasons to remain in Orlando. The Magic can sign Howard to a five-year, $110.8 million deal should he decline his $19.3 million option as expected this summer. Other suitors can only offer four years and $80.5 million. The Celtics will undoubtedly be one of those clubs dangling a max contract, as team president Danny Ainge will have the requisite $18.9 million in salary cap space.
First, the Magic would have to prove to Howard they’ll be a serious title contender for years to come should he remain in Orlando. The first step in that direction would be to leapfrog the Celtics this season on the short list of the Eastern Conference’s elite — something they have yet to do with a healthy Garnett in Boston.
“We just allowed them to get up in our heads, and they won a mental battle,” said Howard, whose team lost a six-game series to the Celtics in the 2009-10 Eastern Conference finals. “And they’ve been doing that for a couple years sometimes. They would just get in our head, and we just have to learn how to play through that.”
And if the Magic fail to make that leap, Ainge already has his sales pitch: “If you can’t beat us, join us.”
(Have a question, concern or conception for tomorrow’s Irish Coffee? Send a message to @brohrbach  on Twitter.)