Howard served an NBA suspension Sunday after picking up his 18th technical foul. He wasn't bothered by the refs - or the Sixers - in his return. Howard dominated the boards with no one in the undersized Sixers lineup able to stop his one-handed jams and alley-oops.
Ryan Anderson had 18 points and 14 rebounds, and Jameer Nelson scored 19 points for the Magic, who had a 23-rebound edge at one point in the second quarter and used a 16-2 run in the third to shake off the pesky Sixers.
Elton Brand led the Sixers with 22 points. Philadelphia is stuck on 41 wins and needs one in Wednesday's finale for its first winning record since 2004-05.
For the Sixers, this a 48-minute preview of what could be ahead in a likely postseason matchup against Miami. They hustled, never quit, made a big run, but they don't have the talent to match up over the long haul with guys like Howard and Nelson, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
The encouraging numbers for the Sixers weren't found in the stat sheet, but in their bios. They started four players under 24: Evan Turner (22), Spencer Hawes (22), Jodie Meeks (23) and Jrue Holiday (20). It's a promising nucleus that the Sixers expect to grow into a contender, even if taking their lumps against the Heat is part of the process.
Each team was shorthanded in their penultimate games of the season.
Philadelphia played without swingman Andre Iguodala (knee tendinitis) and guard Lou Williams (hamstring), who missed his fourth straight game. Sixers coach Doug Collins wanted to give Iguodala some rest before the playoffs start, and he's not sure if Iguodala will play in Wednesday's finale against Detroit.
Gilbert Arenas (sore leg) missed the game for Orlando, J.J. Redick missed his 16th straight game with a lower abdominal strain, and Quentin Richardson served the second of a two-game suspension for shoving Charlotte's Gerald Henderson in the face during a win last week.
Led by Howard and Anderson, the Magic destroyed the Sixers on the boards. At one point in the second quarter, the Magic had outrebounded the Sixers 25-2.
The Magic went into halftime with 22 points in the paint and held the Sixers without any second-chance points.
Even with those lopsided numbers, the Magic only led 50-47 at the break. The Sixers made more baskets from the field and the free-throw line, and Andres Nocioni hit a pair of 3s during a 14-0 run that lifted them back into the game.
Holiday's 3-pointer early in the third gave the Sixers their first lead of the game, 54-52.
Then the fun ended for Philly.
The Magic scored the first 11 points of a 16-2 run that put the game way. Nelson both fed Howard on a rim-wrecking alley-oop and hit a 3 during the run.
Former Sixers coach Jim O'Brien once said Nelson wasn't "best suited for the Sixers" before the 2004 draft. Nelson, the Chester, Pa., native and former Saint Joseph's star, looked right at home on Monday.
Anderson hit 3s late in the third and early in the fourth to build a 17-point lead, and Orlando's 51st win was a formality.
Notes: Howard says he won't change the way he plays even as his technical foul total earns him league-mandated suspensions. "Why switch up who I am?" he said. ... The Magic finished 23-18 on the road. They finished with a winning road record for the fourth straight season. ... Holiday had 15 points and 11 assists.