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Rob Peterson

Doug Benc/NBAE/Getty Images

Magic men grow into their own

By Rob Peterson,
Posted May 31 2009 4:57PM

ORLANDO -- After he got the message from his coach that he was being too timid on both ends of the floor, Dwight Howard sent a text message to his teammates the morning of Game 6.

Dominate for 48 minutes, he typed.

Because Howard listened to his own advice, the Orlando Magic are going to The Finals.

After playing what Magic coach Stan Van Gundy called tentative basketball at both ends of the floor in Game 5, Howard was anything but in Game 6. The All-Star center had the game of his life, scoring a postseason career-high 40 points and grabbing 14 rebounds as the Magic trampled the Cleveland Cavaliers, 103-90, to earn the second trip to The Finals in franchise history.

(Miss the game? Catch a replay Sunday at 12 p.m. EST on NBATV)

"I believe in my team, first of all," Howard said. "I believe that we come out every night and play our brand of basketball, we can beat anybody.

"I have been telling you guys all year. If we run, defend and rebound, we can win a lot of games. And everybody, since I've been here, has always written us off."

Not anymore. Now the stories will be written about how the Magic may be one of the more elastic teams in recent postseason history. They were supposed to lose to the Sixers in Philly because Howard was in a hotel room serving a suspension. They didn't.

This was a team that many declared dead after a dreadful fourth quarter collapse in Game 5 of the conference semifinals to the Boston Celtics. After that game, Howard called out coach Stan Van Gundy for poor rotations and poor game-planning. They suddenly were down 3-2 to a team whose franchise was 32-0 when having two games to win one.

Two games later, after becoming the fourth team not named the Celtics to win a Game 7 in Boston, Van Gundy squeaked a marker across the whiteboard in the locker room to write: 32-1.

Still, for many, the series win over the Cavs comes as a shock. Wasn't this mercurial Magic team too inconsistent to trust, too soft to withstand the rigors of postseason play and too emotional to think straight when it counted?

Add to that, Cleveland had the league's MVP in LeBron James and the NBA's Coach of the Year. The Cavs had won 66 regular-season games and were 8-0 heading into the conference finals. But because Howard and the Magic came of age in this postseason, instead of flying to Cleveland for Game 7, they'll be flying 5 1/2 hours west to Los Angeles for Game 1 on Thursday (9 p.m. ET, ABC).

And, if they win four more games, they will become NBA champions.

Howard, who jumped into a phone booth during All-Star Saturday Night and changed into a Superman cape, has been considered as someone who has too much fun (god forbid) to win.

"I've always been known as somebody who has never been serious or always playing around," Howard said. "But I take the game of basketball very seriously. Every time I step on the floor, I may have a smile on my face, but my main job, my main goal is to go out there and fight for my team.

"And I can do that with a smile on my face."

Orlando general manager Otis Smith said there's a method to Howard's mirth.

"Dwight is crazy like a fox," Smith said. "The team carried us in the first three wins and Dwight carried us the last game. He did what he had to win.

Smiling is easier when you win an Eastern Conference title. And for once in this series, the Magic didn't need any slight of hand or superb execution of a well-drawn up inbounds play at the end of the game to break the backs of the Cavaliers. There was nothing subtle or hard about this win.

First, there was way too much Howard for the Cavs' frontline to handle.

"I have seen Dwight dominate like this, but this is a huge game, man," Van Gundy said. "This is to get to The Finals. And he was incredible. I thought he did a lot of great things today, but I thought that he protected the basket and defended and didn't worry about what was going to happen on calls.

"I thought the other thing he really, really did well today 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 in the fourth quarter."

Howard's steamrolling of Zydrunas Ilguaskas, Anderson Varejao and Ben Wallace in the post, left the Magic's shooters with wide open looks. The Magic may be streaky at times from the perimeter, but when their looks were as clean as they were in Game 6, they're going to make them. Orlando went 7-for-13 from 3-point range in the first half. The inside combo of Howard and the outside combo of every other Magic player left the Cavs in limbo.

"He's a load to guard down there," the Cavs' Wally Szczerbiak said. "You can't guard him one-on-one. We're trapping every time he catches the ball and putting ourselves a man down on the weak side.

"They've got great shooters all over the floor, they got a great rhythm in the flow. And they were just hitting us from all angles."

But that's Magic basketball. If you've watched them this series, you know that by now. You're going to get a heavy dose of Dwight, a steady diet of 3-point shooting and they're going to do a good job of defending while not fouling. They're not going to change, and Smith likes that about Van Gundy, a coach who, contrary to popular belief, doesn't waver.

"Stan is consistent," Smith said. "He's probably the hardest working and most consistent guy I know. He'll work his tail off and keep an even keel. Every day."

While Van Gundy gets emotional, the reason the Magic are headed for the NBA's ultimate series is the belief in the system and the belief in each other.

"Other than Charles Barkley, I don't think very many people thought we could win," Van Gundy said. "And even the game we lost, we were very competitive and against a great team. This team has fought really, really hard."

So, now it just gets tougher. They've dispatched the NBA's best player and now they get to game plan for the NBA's second best player in Kobe Bryant. But with Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and a strong supporting cast, the Lakers and Bryant have far more weapons than the Cavs. Fans -- and Nike and Vitamin Water -- may have wanted to see LeBron and Kobe go mano-a-mano in The Finals, but don't sell this series short. Both teams match up well, and the Magic took the season series 2-0.

Yet, the Magic won't look back at those two games. Not when they have four new ones to look forward to. Not when there's work to be done.

"I'm happy we won," Howard said. "But we've got to move on to the next series, which is The Finals. So, I'm happy about tonight. I'll go home, relax with my family and tomorrow wake up and get ready to go back to work."

That's right, work. Because Howard and the Magic have grown up enough in the past six weeks to know this is no time to fool around.

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