Saturday May 30th, 2009

ORLANDO -- Up 3-2 in the Eastern finals, are these Orlando Magic on the verge of becoming the 2006 Dallas Mavericks? That is LeBron James's hope.

You must remember the NBA Finals three years ago when Dallas held a 2-0 lead overall and a 13-point advantage in the fourth quarter of Game 3, but lost that game to 12 points in the final seven minutes by Dwyane Wade. That fourth quarter shifted the balance permanently as the Miami Heat swept the remaining games for their first championship.

Three years later, on Thursday night in Cleveland, James fended off elimination by scoring or assisting on 32 straight points through the heart of the fourth quarter, personally creating a 32-17 comeback run that resulted in a 112-102 victory. He slowed the tempo so effectively as to make normal shots by Orlando look suddenly like quick, ill-timed attempts. He changed the game -- and, he hopes, the series.

In anticipation of Game 6 here Saturday, Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy promised to respond to the foul trouble James is creating after he went 15 of 19 from the free-throw line to increase his series average to 16.6 attempts per game. "I do think there are some things we can do going into Game 6,'' said Van Gundy of defensive adjustments to double-team James.

It is difficult to double-team James in the middle of the floor because he usually is surrounded by shooters to either side, one of whom will be open. "Then you play him one-on-one and it is real tough, he makes shots,'' said Van Gundy of James, who is shooting 50.9 percent for his 42.3 points -- to go with 7.3 assists, 7.3 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 1.3 blocks in what will be one of the great performances in history if James succeeds in driving Cleveland into the Finals. "If he gets into the paint, it is automatically a foul. We can't keep putting him on the line 20 times a game.

"Guys like him average 10 free throws, 11 free throws, but he is getting 20 every game against us. We've got to find a way to stop that.''

Which leads to the issue that should decide which team from the East will oppose the Lakers in the Finals. Will the Magic revert to their season-long form of creating mismatches and putting Cleveland on its heels with its three-point shooting around the low-post dominance of Dwight Howard? Or has Cleveland figured out a trumping style -- play almost entirely through LeBron to score for himself (with a jumper, drive or free throws) or to draw a double-team that will create an opening for his teammates?

As impressive as James was in that fourth quarter, the odds remain firmly against the Cavaliers. They've lost five of eight games overall against the Magic this season, including losses in all four games here. As impressive as the Magic have been for most of the conference finals, Van Gundy will have their full attention when he urges them to play better defense after yielding huge first-half leads in the three games at Cleveland. "I think we've proven to the nation that we have mental toughness and we'll fight back, OK?'' said Van Gundy. "We don't need to keep trying to prove that by being down 20-plus points at the start of games. It takes a great deal of energy to dig out of those holes every night.

"To win this series, we will have to play for 48 minutes, which we haven't done other than Game 3. We are going to have to defend better. ... We have been living and dying with our offense, a very, very dangerous thing.''

Another issue for Orlando is to keep Howard on the floor. His Game 5 disqualification was his third of the series, and 16 of his 27 fouls have been drawn by James.

Let's not get carried away. For the majority of the time, the play has been carried by Orlando, and it has taken two phenomenal efforts by LeBron to keep his team alive. A strong defensive effort and the continuation of their offensive trends should see the Magic through Game 6 to their first Finals since the early days of Shaquille O'Neal. But the overwhelming presence of LeBron, and the possibility that he could singly change the dynamics, has created doubt where little existed a few days ago.

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