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He's young and still learning, but Howard might have Magic touch

ORLANDO -- This game was as much of a breakthrough for Dwight Howard as the other night had been for LeBron James, and the contrast says everything about their styles.

At the end of Game 2 James turned into Michael Jordan to keep the Cavaliers alive in the Eastern conference finals. Then Howard replied throughout the second half of Game 3 by doing his finest impression of Hakeem Olajuwon, not only providing the Magic with a 2-1 lead but also creating insistent and cadenced hope that they can in fact win the championship this year.

"If anybody has seriously followed our team and thinks that they have to do more to prove their ability to overcome adversity, to have resilience, to come back after tough times, then I don't think it's being fair,'' said Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy after his Magic had recovered from the shock of their Game 2 loss to produce a 99-89 win in Game 3 Sunday. "I don't think our guys have anything to prove in terms of character and mental toughness and all of that.''

Agreed on all points. Toughness and character have never been at issue. The reason to doubt Orlando's championship caliber has had everything to do with their style as a three-point shooting team. It makes them the equivalent of a football team that passes out of the run-and-shoot, and how many teams have won a championship that way?

The Magic defend, they play hard and smart and they fight back relentlessly. What they haven't done consistently is to score inside as well as from the foul line, which would enable them to control tempo and maintain consistency in all types of playoff conditions. But that changed in a most unpredictable way Sunday when Howard led Orlando with 24 points on 8 -- 8! -- field goal attempts in a postseason-low 27 minutes.

Howard's first half had threatened disaster: Three early fouls had limited him to fewer than 10 minutes with 6 points and 3 rebounds. The Magic held a bare 42-41 advantage that they surely wouldn't be able to maintain on a night when Hedo Turkoglu was going 1 for 11 overall -- not unless Howard gave them an All-NBA second half. And that was no sure thing."Being that he missed most of the first half,'' said Magic point guard Rafer Alston, "I didn't know how much of a rhythm he was going to be able to get into.''

But he launched the third quarter by sprinting to the far end, catching the ball and driving it into the belly of 7-foot-3 Cavs center Zydrunas Ilgauskas. A three-point opportunity was awarded and Howard cashed it in. He was on his way.

"I just tried to stay aggressive,'' said Howard, who added 9 rebounds. "I just kept telling myself, stay in the game and get ready for the second half and try to dominate.''

A big issue for Howard has always been his unreliable free throw shooting. He converted an unacceptable 59.4 percentfrom the line this season, barely better than the 57.2 he converted from the field with defenders shrouding and banging against him. On this night, however, he made an impressive 12 of 15 free throws over the second half, and he could not have struck his newfound rhythm at a better time.

The relatively low score and the poor 42.9% Game 3 shooting of the Magic are not endemic of their typical winning style. The tempo was slow but on this particular night it became their tempo. They controlled the second half by going to Howard in the post time after time. He would achieve early position down low, make a quick move and either score or draw the foul, and time after time again he made his free throws.

This continues a promising trend of Howard coming up big for Orlando ever since he publicly demanded more touches while criticizing Van Gundy's play-calling in Game 5 of the previous round against Boston."We went to Dwight more in the last five minutes of the game than we have in the playoffs,'' said Van Gundy. "We'll continue to go that way.''

The fouling of Howard fit into Cleveland's larger strategy of making things difficult for him."I think two free throws for him (is) a whole lot tougher than him making a dunk or a layup,'' said Cavaliers guard Mo Williams, who had another rough 5-for-16 shooting night while requiring four stitches around his left eye thanks to a Flagrant 1 elbow from Anthony Johnson. "So we'll live with those odds. We are going to put him on the line. We are going to force him to earn those two at the line.''

The Cavaliers have their own issues. The poor shooting of Williams (32.1 percent in the series), Delonte West (41.9) and Zydrunas Ilgauskas (38.2) has limited James's effectiveness as a playmaker and turned him into a taller, higher-scoring version of Kobe Bryant. The Cavaliers are at their best when both sides of LeBron's personality are in balance -- his passing and his scoring -- and they aren't built to win when he is forced to average 41.7 points in a series in order to singlehandedly keep his team alive.

Though James had 41 points while earning 24 of his team's 35 free-throw attempts, the dominant player of this game was Howard. For one possession after another after another he brought the game to a halt, put points on the board and enabled his defense to set up around him in the halfcourt. He became the go-to running back who chewed up yards while running out the clock to maintain his team's lead.

During the pregame warmup he had focused on making his free throws to the exclusion of all else, like a golfer concentrating on four-footers at the practice green. When it came time to shoot them for real, he found a new way to relax."I didn't think about it,'' he said. "I was actually singing a song tonight in my head. It was a song I heard at halftime, one of the dance songs. I kept thinking about dancing the whole time, and free throws (were) going in, so I might need to keep up that routine.''

The question this season has been whether Howard at age 23 is ready to lead a team to the championship when he still has so much more to learn. But maybe he is an exceptionally fast learner, and maybe it's not such a long-shot to think they'll be playing that same halftime dance song to celebrate a parade through Orlando next month.

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