ATLANTA -- Even as they shouted and ran through the tunnel, celebrating after dispatching the Orlando Magic in Thursday's playoff series-clinching victory, the Atlanta Hawks were never too proud to admit they couldn't find an answer for stopping Dwight Howard.
The task was daunting, but not impossible.
Channeling his inner Bill Russell on defense and Wilt Chamberlain on offense, Howard dunked, rebounded, rejected shots, scowled, elbowed, pushed and shoved his way to arguably the most productive playoff series of his career. Yet after Thursday's 84-81 loss to the Hawks in Game 6, all he had to show for it was a frustrating first-round playoff outster against lower-seeded Atlanta.
Well, that -- and an immediate future of uncertainty.
While Atlanta moves on to a second-round matchup with the Chicago Bulls, Orlando retreats to what potentially stands to be a testy if not outright turbulent offseason.
As coach, Stan Van Gundy is going to have to answer for why the playoff exits keep coming earlier for the Magic, who lost to the Lakers in the 2009 NBA Finals and were bounced by Boston in last season's Eastern Conference finals before bowing out in Round 1 against the Hawks.
As president of basketball operations, Otis Smith is going to have to explain why those major December trades that landed Gilbert Arenas, Jason Richardson and Hedo Turkoglu were necessary, and why he should be trusted to fix the roster he busted up in the name of championship aspirations.
But for now, as the face of the franchise, Howard quickly had to make the transition from being the face of the fight that kept the Magic's hope alive in this series to being the face of the initial fallout.
Howard was relentless in his approach to breaking down the Hawks' front line. But when asked to size up his immediate future amid what's certain to be Carmelo- and LeBron-like speculation heading into the offseason with just one more year on his contract, you could hear the brakes screeching in his head.
"That has nothing to do with right now," Howard said, interrupting the question before it was asked completely. "There's no need for me to comment on it. So let's not even talk about it. There's no need to bring it up. Right now, I'm going to figure out how I can get myself better for next season, not about what team I'm going to play for. So all the speculation can stop. It's no need to talk about it."
Those broad shoulders, that muscular frame and his brute strength give Howard the appearance of a superhero who could get out in front of this speculation train and derail it before it destroys his focus, rips apart his franchise and torments his city. But this is a battle Howard can't win. Not unless he signs a contract extension or publicly commits to staying in Orlando for the duration of his prime.
Asked by ESPN.com after Thursday's loss, Smith confirmed that Howard has been approached with a contract extension that would tack two additional seasons onto the two he has remaining, including the option year Howard holds to test free agency after next season.
Even with the uncertainty surrounding the league's expiring collective bargaining agreement, Smith isn't sure how seriously Howard's camp would entertain an extension right now when he could sign a new, long-term deal as the most coveted free agent in 2012.
"Yeah, but what's he going to do with a two-year extension?" Smith said as he headed to the Magic's bus to leave Philips Arena.
Smith knows Howard and the Magic will be caught in a storm of trade speculation this summer -- the same storm that swarmed Denver this season until Anthony was dealt. But Smith continues to insist there's one key difference between the Magic and Nuggets.
"We're not trading him," Smith told ESPN.com on Thursday regarding Howard. "You can print it wherever you want it, but it ain't ever going to bed until he signs a contract extension or signs somewhere else."
Smith said Howard has never given the Magic any indication that he wants to be anywhere other than Orlando. Because of that, Smith said, there is no circumstance under which he would consider entertaining trade offers that are certain to come this summer and leading up to next year's trade deadline.
I asked Smith whether Howard has told him directly that he wants to remain the Magic's cornerstone.
"Yeah, and he's said it to you guys, too," Smith said. "But it's not enough [for the media]. It's not enough until he signs. [The media] is going to talk about it, and everybody else is going to talk about it until we're blue in the face, no matter what he says."
The Magic have moved this week to counter the national perception that there could be drastic changes in the aftermath of their playoff disappointment. Team CEO Bob Vander Weide told the Orlando Sentinel this week that both Van Gundy and Smith were expected back next season.
Before Thursday's game, Van Gundy said he hadn't been told he would be back but that the public vote of confidence wasn't really necessary.
"I don't think any of us think about that at all," Van Gundy said. "There's no need to. I mean, I've got two more years on my contract and, you know, that's just not an issue. It's an issue in terms of -- I understand the media likes it. And there's big interest in those issues. I've never known a coach who was too worried about that. Whatever happens, happens."
The bigger question might be whether Van Gundy and Smith can continue to co-exist. Van Gundy at times has pointed out the limitations of his roster. Smith has turned over the supporting cast twice since the Magic lost to the Lakers in the Finals in 2009.
After Thursday's loss, Van Gundy placed the blame on himself for coming up short of expectations.
"We've been together long enough," Van Gundy said when asked whether the midseason trades and injuries made it difficult to ever establish a rhythm with his team. "I've had good enough players and I feel like we should have won. So that's where I am. I will say this, and I don't say this as an excuse, I never established a good perimeter rotation. Where my disappointment lies in, I have a guy like Dwight Howard ... and I couldn't get them over the hump to win a series. I have to take responsibility for that."
Smith accepted some responsibility for the trades not working out as planned.
"We lost in the first round in the playoffs, and it's not something we planned, not something we're happy about," Smith said. "You can't blame us for rubbing. We're in the business to win a championship. We're not in the business to finish second. So the feeling was we had the right team on the floor and this was the team to get us there. They didn't. So obviously, we have some work to do."
And they all sounded like they were going to continue to be in business together next season.
"That's the plan," Howard said. "Come back stronger next year. That's about all you can do."
Those close to Howard insist it's not in his character to go the LeBron route, promise to deliver a championship and then leave town. Howard also is sensitive to the way Shaquille O'Neal departed Orlando in free agency in a move that left the Magic with nothing in return.
It's also not in Howard's nature, some say, to do it Carmelo's way and allow trade speculation to derail a team's season. Those factors would seem to make leaving Orlando almost impossible for Howard. Key word: almost. There's also a side of Howard that envies the national attention Derrick Rose got this season. And he is attracted to the bright lights and global exposure that would come with a professional residence in Los Angeles or New York.
"It's nothing against LeBron or Carmelo, but to me, I think Dwight's a pretty loyal guy," said Hawks forward Josh Powell, who has been close with Howard since their childhood in Atlanta. "I know he's hurting right now. He's been with that team since day one. I would assume and expect he would stay there. But it's tough on him to see them get as close as they got two years ago and then fall back."
Powell waited outside the Magic's locker room for Howard to emerge. He did the same thing two years ago while a member of the Lakers after they defeated the Magic in Orlando.
"He's built so many relationships with the fans, the city," said Powell, who is as close to Howard as any player in the league. "He's the face of the organization and the face of that city. The guy has been weathering the storm all year long. He's shown how dominant he is. Can't nobody question what he's given them. But he has a right to do what he wants to do. I'm sure the organization will find a way to please their superstar, so to speak. It's going to be an interesting summer."
Howard said it wasn't his job to evaluate the personnel around him.
"My job is to play," he said.
He also had a message for Magic fans who might be on pins and needles regarding his future.
"It's going to be better; just keep believing," Howard said. "Keep making Orlando the best place to play. I'll do whatever I can to lead my city. I love Orlando, so I'm going to do as much as I can. Put in a lot of work during the offseason. I'm going to continue to do that. My fans deserve a championship, and I'm just going to keep fighting. That's all I can do. Just keep fighting."