Sunday May 31st, 2009

ORLANDO -- The King wasn't dead, he was just leaving the arena earlier than expected. The blue and white confetti fell softly amid the triumphant noise as LeBron James left the court to the celebrations of the Orlando Magic, surprise champs of the Eastern conference thanks to their 103-90 win (RECAP | BOX) in Game 6 Saturday.

They're going to the NBA Finals on a career playoff-best 40 points from 23-year-old center Dwight Howard, the long-awaited replacement for Shaquille O'Neal, who in his youth embodied the promise of the expansion Magic franchise when he led them to the Finals in 1995. One year later, Shaq was running off to win three titles with Los Angeles, and it just so happens now that the Lakers will be host when the Finals are launched Thursday.

In so many ways, Howard represents closure as well as renewed promise for a franchise that had no business expecting to go so far this season, especially when their young roster suffered a devastating season-ending injury to All-Star point guard and team leader Jameer Nelson. A midseason trade for Nelson's replacement, Rafer Alston, re-positioned the Magic to reach this conference finals, which turned out to be easy in comparison to the opening rounds against the 76ers (who led 2-1 before succumbing in six games) and the champion Celtics (who were up 3-2).

"I have seen Dwight dominate like this, but this is a huge game, man,'' said Magic coach Stan Van Gundy. "This is to get to the Finals, and he was incredible.''

Howard was unguardable from the opening possession, when he drove from the foul line for a 2-0 lead the Magic would never relinquish. Having fouled out from three of the previous five games, Van Gundy urged Howard to stop worrying about foul trouble and play to his defensive fundamentals. "He protected the basket and defended and didn't worry about what was going to happen on calls,'' said Van Gundy. "The other thing he really, really did well was run, and I thought that wore on them and wore on them. We got him easy catches in transition, and then we just rode him in the post to the fourth quarter.''

Having watched James dominate the fourth quarter of Game 5, the Magic established their tempo through Howard. He had the kind of athletic, yet nuanced, game worthy of a 10-year All-Star: 14-of-21 from the floor, 12-of-16 from the line, 14 rebounds and four impressive assists out of the double teams -- when he wasn't splitting them for bankers and two-handed emphatic dunks that lit up the crowd.

Howard at his best embellished the mismatches that defined this series, enabling the league's No. 1 seed and NBA finalist of two years ago to be drummed out by an opponent with but one playoff series win prior to this spring. The Magic's height advantage at the three-point line combined with Howard's dominance inside to so space the floor that very few shots outside the paint were contested by Cleveland's top-rated defense. They had drawn the worst of all opponents, and if not for James's buzzer-beating three in Game 2, the Cavs would have been swept.

As it was, James managed series lows of 25 points (imagine that, to be disappointed by a 25-point night) and 11 free throw attempts. He dressed quickly and departed uncharacteristically without giving interviews, but during the game he was clearly frustrated by his team's defensive breakdowns as well as the myriad fouls drawn by Howard.

Against any other team -- the Lakers or the Celtics even with a healthy Kevin Garnett -- the Cavs would have been far more able to impose their strengths than they did against this group. Cleveland's backcourt of Mo Williams and Delonte West combined for 39, but center Zydrunas Ilgauskas was limited to two points as Howard drew him and Anderson Varejao into foul trouble, and the Cleveland bench was outscored 14-10 by Orlando sixth man Mickael Pietrus. The favorites were clearly out of sync, as their 11-for-22 performance at the free-throw line would attest.

Instead of feeling pressure to defend their homecourt against the league MVP, the Magic received a text message Friday night from Howard imploring them to focus on a singular theme. "I just told them when they wake up today, think about dominating,'' said Howard. "When they come to shootaround, think about dominate. When they get to the gym for the game, think about dominate.''

He then practiced his own preaching. The favored Lakers were no doubt paying attention, knowing full well that Howard's Magic had swept their season series 2-0.

"Our reward -- especially mine and my coaching staff's -- is you get to go from preparing for LeBron to preparing for Kobe,'' said Van Gundy. "That will be a lot of fun, but I'm not doing that tonight.''

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