Wednesday May 27th, 2009

ORLANDO -- To understand who the Orlando Magic are and how they happen to be ruining the money-making hopes of everyone vested in a LeBron-Kobe Finals, please refer to their possession with 6.4 seconds remaining in Game 4 on Tuesday.

They were down by a point to the best team in the league, and the ball was in the hands of a shooter who was 1-of-5 entering the fourth quarter. Rashard Lewis had no business making the biggest shot on so frigid a night. Yet there he was, grinning in defensive retreat as he hugged Hedo Turkoglu, whose inbounds pass had found him in the left corner for the concussive three-pointer that ruined another night for Cleveland.

"We've lost two games off inbounds plays,'' said LeBron James after the Magic had extended Lewis' game-upending three into a 116-114 overtime win (RECAP | BOX) to take a 3-1 lead in the Eastern Conference finals. "Being up two in Game 1, being up 1 tonight -- and we've lost two games off inbounds plays.''

Another way of looking at it is the No. 1-seeded Cavaliers are one big second away from being swept, saved as they were in Game 2 by James' buzzer-beating three. As enduring as that shot will be in the highlight reel of LeBron's career, Lewis is having the better of it in this series, having also stolen Game 1 on a last-moment three that no longer seems at all lucky now.

On Tuesday night in Game 4, Lewis' shot did leave James with 4.1 seconds remaining to make up Cleveland's two-point deficit. He drove right-handed into the flank of Mickael Pietrus to earn the free throws that forced OT at 100-100. But the second of James' foul shots was an expression of doubt as it bounced off the back rim, hopped to the front and threatened to spill out before falling in. All that extra point did was provide the Magic with an additional five minutes to further rub in their advantages.

The clincher was provided in the post by 6-foot-11, 265-pound Dwight Howard, who in the previous round against the bruising Celtics was fighting to gain position eight feet from the basket. In this series he has been sprinting past the Cavaliers to his favorite places under the basket, leaving him one stride away from a two-handed dunk or a neat reverse layup, depending on his mood. The overtime began with Howard in foul trouble with five personals, and it ended with him scoring 10 of Orlando's 16 points.

The run-up to this crucial game began with Cleveland's beleaguered All-Star point guard Mo Williams guaranteeing a victory, only to be outscored 26-18 by Rafer Alston, who went 6-of-12 from the three-point line. There is indeed a March Madness quality to the torrid Magic, who attempted almost half of their 80 field goals from the three-point line and still shot 50 percent overall against the league's top-rated defense.

Mismatches are becoming the death of Cleveland. Cavs guard Delonte West yields seven inches when he tries to guard Turkoglu (15 points). Courtney Lee, at 6-5, is bigger than any Cavs guard short of Wally Szczerbiak, who along with Daniel Gibson made a long-awaited appearance in the series. Small forward Pietrus bombed five of his 11 threes for 17 points, helping to further clear space inside for Howard to finish with his team-high 27 points on 16 field goals, in addition to going 7-of-9 from the foul line (including a big pair with 21 seconds remaining in OT to make it 113-109), which is not to take for granted his 14 rebounds, three blocks and four assists.

Now we've reached the point of reminding everyone the Cavaliers will be difficult to put away. James had another terrific night overall with 44 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists, but he played the entire second half and OT, and in the 17 minutes of the final two periods he committed seven turnovers. "The ball is in my hand a lot and I may have a few turnovers, but I have to figure out how to not have eight,'' said James of his final number. "Eight is unacceptable for me. Fatigue has nothing to do with it.''

There were so many positive signs all night long for Cleveland, which benefited from strong bounce-back games by West (17 points) and Zydrunas Ilgauskas (10 points and eight rebounds) in addition to Williams, who wasn't efficient but played aggressively for his 18 points. Each of the top eight Cavaliers contributed at least one big play to create the impression that they were turning the corner. But then some underdog always seemed to answer with another big three, or the game's next great center was tomahawking another dunk.

"It is no time to celebrate,'' said Howard. "We've really got to be focused going into Cleveland because it is probably going to be the hardest game of the season.''

It surely will be, but it's nothing that a few more threes can't overcome.

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