Monday May 18th, 2009

It has taken four weeks and 13 games, but the Orlando Magic have finally won.

What's that you say? Doesn't Orlando own eight playoff wins now? Well, think about it: How many games has the doubting public actually credited the Magic with winning this postseason? They didn't win Games 2, 4 and 5 in the first round series with Philadelphia -- the Sixers lost them. And never mind that they blew out Philadelphia in the deciding Game 6 on the road without their franchise player (Dwight Howard) and starting two-guard (Courtney Lee). Philly dropped the ball in that one, big time.

The Boston series? Man, the Celtics were giving games away. How about Game 1, a 95-90 victory? Boston was exhausted from a grueling seven-game series with Chicago and still nearly erased a 28-point Magic lead. Same story in Game 3, when a 20-point Magic lead was trimmed to seven before Orlando blew it open. Forget that the Magic were without Rafer Alston and survived the Celtics onslaught with 12-year journeyman Anthony Johnson at the helm.

And you want to see a team give a game away? Check out what the Celtics did in Game 6. Leading by 10 in the second half, Boston imploded and allowed Orlando to escape with an 83-75 victory.

It seems no matter what Orlando does, it can't ditch the perception that it wasn''t winning games so much as the other team was losing them.

"It feels that way, doesn't it," said Rashard Lewis. "You got to give us credit for tonight though."

Yes, Rashard, we do. Orlando didn't beat Boston in Game 7 of their Eastern Conference semifinal; they obliterated them. Leading virtually wire-to-wire, the Magic used an 11-0 run to open the fourth quarter to swell the lead to double figures and propel the team to a stunning 101-82 victory (RECAP | BOX).

"They played their hearts out today," said the Celtics' Glen Davis. "They played tough."

Tough. There's a word that's not associated with Orlando very often. Even with the Defensive Player of the Year manning the middle in Howard, the Magic have been universally regarded by most observers as soft. Tissue paper soft, really. Maybe it was the two small forwards they started in the frontcourt. Or the occasional unwillingness for anyone but Howard to grab a rebound. Whatever the reason, the Magic are the NBA's Charmin.

"I don't really understand it," said Lewis. "We got the big guy in the middle. Maybe it's because we shoot a lot of jump shots. I don't know. I do know that this team is not soft."

In fact, the case can be made that the Magic are tough. Down 3-2 against the defending champions, Orlando appeared on the verge of melting down after a shocking 92-88 defeat in Game 5 that was punctuated by Howard and Stan Van Gundy exchanging verbal haymakers. Instead, the Magic calmly dispatched Boston at home in Game 6 and eliminated them behind 44 points from Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu in Game 7.

"I think we have become a much tougher team," said Howard. "When our shots aren't falling, we still try to find a way to score. We have matured as a team."

And his spat with Van Gundy?

"We have a new stat that we came up with," said Howard. "When we call out the coach, we are 3-0."

Certainly the maturity Howard speaks of will be tested next round. After mopping the floor with Detroit and Atlanta in the first two rounds, the Cavaliers are well rested and eager to bang bodies with someone in a different uniform. And they have revenge on their minds, having been beaten in two out of three against Orlando in the regular season.

"Sure they are good," said Tony Battie. "But we're not afraid of them. We have some of the best players in the world. We know we can win."

Said Howard, "The biggest thing for us is to go into Cleveland with the same mentality we had tonight. That's starting and finishing the game with great intensity."

Maybe Howard can bottle some of the intensity that spilled over after the final buzzer sounded on Sunday. As Van Gundy charged into the visiting locker room, he reminded anyone within earshot of a stat that had been thrown in the Magic's face repeatedly over the last 48 hours: Boston was 32-0 when they led a series 3-2.

Smiling widely, Van Gundy said, "I guess they are 32-1 now."

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