"I was shocked, seriously, shocked," Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said of O'Neal's flopping. "And very disappointed cause he knows what it's like. Let's stand up and play like men, and I think our guy did that tonight."
O'Neal finished with 19 points and 11 rebounds, outmuscling his first NBA team for most of the night before he lost his cool late, again drawing boos by the Orlando crowd. His technical foul with 3:38 left contributed to nine straight points for the Magic that gave Orlando a 10-point lead to put the game out of reach.
"I'm really too old to be trying to outscore 18-year-olds," O'Neal said, referring to the 23-year-old Howard. "It's not really my role anymore."
But it was the past and present Magic big men who mixed it up most of the night.
With nearly 600 pounds of All-Stars banging on the inside, bodies were flying. On one play in the third quarter Howard backed down O'Neal, sent him to the floor flopping and dunked over the 325-pounder while O'Neal rolled under Rafer Alston and Matt Barnes, wiping them out like bowling pins.
The back-and-forth jostling wasn't just physical. The two were trash-talking throughout, with each turning up the lip -- and the intensity -- after every dunk.
The two have long been self-described Superman, with O'Neal claiming he was Orlando's first man of steel. O'Neal also has played down Howard's performances, saying he hasn't done anything new in Orlando and that he has four more championships than the still up-and-coming Howard.
Howard admitted the words fueled motivation, even taking a slight jab at O'Neal's age.
"I think he was really just trying to get in my head," Howard said. "I respect my elders, so I'm not going to get into a war of words."
Howard came out in the third with force, scoring eight points before picking up his fourth foul with 3:36 remaining in the period. O'Neal would return the favor, dunking twice in the period to put the Suns ahead 81-78 at the end of the third.
Howard converted a 3-point play on a foul by O'Neal to tie the score at 88 midway through the fourth, putting the thunder-stick pounding home crowd into a frenzy.
"I can't compare him to Dwight, because Dwight is No. 1 right now," said Magic reserve center Marcin Gortat, who had eight points. "When I'm getting hit from Dwight I just feel, if I get hit on my left shoulder, I feel it in my right finger."
With the focus on the two centers, the guards used the space on the perimeter to take over.
Richardson's 3-pointer gave the Suns back the lead before Turkoglu and Lewis hit consecutive shots from beyond the arc that gave the Magic a 94-91 lead. Then things got testy.
Howard dribbled down the lane and was fouled on the shot by Nash, while O'Neal stood with his hands straight up protesting the call. O'Neal persisted there was no contact between Howard and Nash, and was called for a technical foul that spurred the Magic's late run.
The recent resurgence of O'Neal, who scored 33 in a win over the Lakers on Sunday and 45 in a victory over Toronto last week, was evident for most of the night. He turns 37 on Friday, but his play of late has resembled the slender center -- whom Howard has drawn comparisons -- drafted by Orlando in 1992.
The duo turned it into a big-man battle early.
O'Neal rejected Howard's hook shot in the Magic's first possession, sending the ball out to Leandro Barbosa for an easy layup on the other end. Three possessions later Howard would answer, beating O'Neal down the floor for a monstrous one-hand dunk.
Howard was called for his third foul on an illegal pick with 6:32 left in the half, and Phoenix took advantage in his absence. Nash's 3-pointer capped a 12-2 Suns run after Howard went out, but Orlando would comeback with a 11-4 spurt to close the half and tie the score at 56-all.
"Fun matchup," said O'Neal, who was double teamed most of the night. "I like to play people one-on-one. My whole career I had to play people one-on-one. Never once had to double or ask for a double. But it's cool."
O'Neal returns to Miami on Wednesday for the first time since being traded by the Heat 13 months ago. ... O'Neal had 185 regular-season wins with the Magic in four seasons. Howard is in his fifth year and earned his 206th regular-season victory with Orlando on Tuesday. ... Grant Hill, who played six mostly injury-riddled seasons in Orlando, also was booed by the home crowd repeatedly. ... Yankees pitchers Joba Chamberlain, CC Sabathia and Chien-Ming Wang were in attendance.
Jorge Sedano explains why the Heat are being noncommittal about whether Chris Bosh will play this postseason, despite Bosh's desire to do so.
NBA referees have made several high-profile incorrect calls, or non-calls, in the final few minutes of this year's playoffs.
Jorge Sedano says the performance of Dwyane Wade and the Heat in this year's playoffs will determine how attractive the team will be to free agents this summer.