The 22-year-old All-Star, usually the team's biggest jokester, suddenly got serious. So did his already-impressive numbers.
Howard had 21 points, 21 rebounds and three blocks -- his third 20-20 game in the series -- and the Magic advanced to second round for the first time in 12 years by beating the Toronto Raptors 102-92 in Game 5 on Monday night.
"There was a different demeanor from him," Van Gundy said of his young center. "Dwight is a fun-loving guy and he likes to fool around. There are a lot of times during the year, not bad, but a lot of times during the year where I've got to try to bring him back to being serious when we're preparing.
"I did not have to say one word, from the start of preparation for this series all the way through," Van Gundy said.
Howard's game said it all. And with Orlando's usually steady 3-point shooting on the fritz, his inside power was enough to pull them through.
"He's a phenom; he's the best center in the league," said Raptors star Chris Bosh, who was guarded by Howard all game. "He's probably the strongest guy in the league, and he knows how to use his body. It doesn't surprise me at all. I've seen him play this whole series, I've seen him play this season."
Bosh, who posted career playoff highs of 39 points and 15 rebounds at Toronto on Saturday, had 16 points and nine rebounds Monday. Howard frustrated him down low into 7-of-19 shooting, and Bosh picked up a third-quarter technical foul after the Magic star muscled past him for a layup.
"We knew in the regular season that every time we played the Orlando Magic that you've got to score, and we just couldn't score," Toronto coach Sam Mitchell said. "We didn't make enough shots."
The Magic will play the winner of the Detroit-Philadelphia series, which is tied 2-2, in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Keyon Dooling's free throw after the technical on Bosh put the Magic ahead 73-66 with just under a minute left in the third quarter, and Orlando kept that cushion until midway through the fourth. Delfino hit a jumper and Bosh made two free throws in four trips to the line, plus a hook shot over Howard, to draw the Raptors within 84-82.
The Magic, who shot the fourth-best percentage in the NBA from 3-point range this season, struggled again from long range (9-of-32), but made them when it counted. Keith Bogans and Jameer Nelson each hit one and Howard added a layup as the Magic answered with an 8-0 run over 3:13 to open a 92-82 lead, then its largest of the game.
It was enough room to let them coast.
"We've depended on the 3 all year. It's going to make us or break us," Bogans said. "Coach just tells us to keep shooting them and don't stop."
Nelson scored 19 points for Orlando and Rashard Lewis had 18 points and 13 rebounds. Hedo Turkoglu just missed a triple-double with 12 points, eight rebounds and nine assists, while Maurice Evans scored 12 points and Bogans added 11.
Orlando hadn't won a playoff series since 1996, when Shaquille O'Neal and Penny Hardaway led the team to the Eastern Conference finals. The Magic played 28 postseason games in the intervening years, winning only eight.
Howard grinned broadly, still unable to believe it was true.
"It's just an unbelievable feeling," he said. "We did something I feel that hasn't been done here in a while."
Orlando looked good early, taking a 10-2 lead on 3-of-5 shooting, but the Raptors guards took over for the rest of the first half. Calderon fueled a 10-4 run with two 3-pointers to close the first quarter up 26-22, and Delfino scored eight consecutive points in the second quarter. The Magic drew to 44-43 as the Raptors went 2:20 Raptors without scoring -- a period in which Lewis had nine points -- but Ford scored six in a row on two jumpers and two free throws to keep the Magic from regaining the lead before halftime.
Toronto's Jamario Moon, who strained his groin in the third quarter Saturday and didn't return, started for the second time in the series. He had six points in the first quarter on two quick 3-pointers but just two more the rest of the way.
- The NBA announced earlier in the day that Turkoglu was its Most Improved Player.
- Orlando is 4-0 all time in Game 5s at home.
- Toronto's bench outscored the Magic's in all five games -- by a lot. The margin was 39-20 on Monday, and 149-75 through the first four games.
- The Raptors lost their last five games on the road.
- Tiger Woods and Chicago Bulls F Drew Gooden watched from courtside.