courtesy of AP

ORLANDO – The last game of the preseason is always meaningless. That’s been a constant throughout my years covering the NBA and was undoubtedly true back when George Mikan roamed as the game’s dominant big man.

Now it’s Dwight Howard who rules as the game’s best 7-footer, managing to do so in spite of being 6-11. No one has imposed his will on the boards the way he has since entering the league. Drivers who venture into his paint do so knowing there’s a strong likelihood that the shot they throw up will never reach its destination.

So yeah, because Howard’s future is in limbo, the grueling ritual that was this final meaningless game before a new season begins actually packed some genuine intrigue. It mattered that the abbreviated preseason finale came on the heels of Sunday’s embarrassing 118-85 loss in South Florida. After all, if he gets his way, this is the final time Howard is preparing to start a season in a Magic uniform.

Orlando practiced on game day, so you can place an asterisk by Wednesday’s early returns, but it wasn’t a good look to fall behind 12-0. It was painful to watch it take 6:40 for someone other than Howard to put a point on the board. The Heat regulars raced out to an 18-6 lead before Erik Spoelstra started tinkering.

Howard has already had to shoot down the assumption that he’s dogging it, forced to fire a “people who know me and know basketball know I would never to do that to my team, to my fans and to the game of basketball” bullet.

“People are going to say whatever they want to say right now because of the situation that is going on,” Howard told assembled reporters on Tuesday. “Every little thing is going to be magnified times 100.”

It’s with that pressure that the Orlando Magic’s season is set to start.

Thanks to a second-half rally that erased a 56-42 halftime deficit that at one point saw them behind by as much as 23, the Magic were able to alleviate some of that funk with a 104-100 victory that ended with Howard openly pleading for calls from his position on the bench, smiling and celebrating key buckets from backups Glen Davis and Daniel Orton.

Howard’s energy level is fine. He’s still his typical dominant self, but the boundless optimism that typically permeates throughout even Minnesota and Toronto at this stage of the season was missing in Central Florida until an unlikely comeback.

Instead of a sense of impending disaster and a waiting game the franchise doesn’t want to play but has little choice in the matter, Orlando can look forward to a season that starts with a difficult test in Oklahoma City with some optimism, however contrived. The attitude in the locker room doesn’t feel like one that’s very loose, especially with cuts also coming. There’s actually pressure in the preseason.

That’s in stark contrast to the vibe you get from the Miami Heat. LeBron James practically skipped down the hallway outside the visiting locker room at Amway Arena, remaining in what’s been termed as a consistent great mood by Heat beat writers. He looks relaxed, ready to put June’s colossal failure behind him.

He got into it with long-time nemesis Quentin Richardson, a sign both are ready to get the real action on underway.

Last time I saw LeBron in the flesh, he was inserting his Size 16s in his mouth post-Game 6. Remember the jist, he’d still be waking up in the morning to a great life while haters who derived satisfaction from his misfortune would remain stuck in their menial lives?

All that angst seems to have melted away. The Heat have added Shane Battier, Chris Bosh has added some well-placed size and Dwyane Wade looks slim and in mid-season form. Talk of an inevitable Eastern Conference finals clash with Chicago has replaced the very recent failure against Dallas.

Know why? The Heat can look ahead.

The Magic can’t. There’s nothing concrete to look forward to besides this inevitable trade.

Once it goes down, when it goes down, Orlando can turn the page and truly build its team. Right now, holding pattern mode is the norm, which may ultimately be bearable if the Magic can string together wins like these, even in exhibitions.

During the lowlights that will also be a part of this, silly distractions like “Stay Dwight” chants at the 2:00 mark of every quarter will be a part of the depressing scene. Incidentally, fans embarassingly dropped the ball on that dress rehearsal in this preseason game, falling silent when the moment arrived. Either they’re simply stuck in the same depressed preseason gloom that’s struck they’re favorite team or perhaps are already over a campaign that looks to carry little impact on the inevitable.

Stan Van Gundy, still hammering out his rotation while Hedo Turkoglu mends and another backup center hopefully arrives, will hear Howard questions as long as he’s here. For the record, he says he and Howard talk all the time, that they spoke for over an hour last week. That’s amusing only because intelligent grown reporters were forced to suppress their desire to beg for details. What did he say? What did you say? Who does he want shipped in and out of town so he’ll stay?

Stay. Stay. Stay.

It all sounds pretty futile since he’s owned up to his intentions.

Van Gundy went out of his way to call Howard one of the easiest players to coach he’s ever had, lauding his work ethic and intelligence. He said a lot and offered little at the same time. What else can he do? It’s already clear that “I can only coach the players I have here” will be an oft-repeated mantra.

Howard expressed optimism that his relationship with Van Gundy can continue to improve and be an anchor for the rest of the team.  One of the details he divulged regarding his conversation was that he and Van Gundy stressed staying on the same page no matter what goes wrong.  That sounds far-fetched considering what’s going down, but Howard considered it growth that Van Gundy didn’t panic with the Magic down early, electing to sit back and put it on Howard and Jameer Nelson to steer a comeback.  If nothing else, it’s something Magic fan can cling on if they’re looking for optimism under the tree.

In the other locker room, Spoelstra was simply looking to see what his rotations would look like and giving players who will be cut by 6 p.m. on Saturday ample time to showcase their skills for potential suitors.

The Orlando Magic avoided being swept by Miami in their preseason home-and-home series. Neither game counted, but neither was necessarily meaningless.

It would’ve been very meaningful if only one team showed up. It matters that the Magic opened the 2011-12 season sloppily, wearing a vacant, defeated look thanks to circumstances beyond their control. It’s of vital importance that they rallied to get themselves a bit of a reprieve, catching their breath during a time when those won’t be easily accessible.