By TOM WITHERS
The Associated Press
ORLANDO, Fla. – Overlooked and begging for respect all season, the Orlando Magic can no longer be ignored. After 14 frustrating years, they’ve returned to the NBA finals.
Dwight Howard dominated inside for 40 points, Rashard Lewis added 18 and the Magic, a team that can make 3-pointers drop from thin air, hit 12 in a 103-90 victory over LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals on Saturday night.
“Total domination,” Lewis said. “He totally dominated the game. He carried us on his back tonight.”
The Magic will be making their first finals appearance since 1995, one year before Shaquille O’Neal bolted as a free agent for Los Angeles, leaving this Florida franchise in ruins.
It’s been a long, slow climb back, but Orlando has been rebuilt and will meet the Lakers on Thursday night at the Staples Center in Game 1.
Disney World vs. Disneyland.
“I just think this team all year long has shown an incredible amount of heart,” Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said. “This team just keeps fighting back. They deserve it.”
Oh, and memo to Nike executives: It’s time to break out the Howard puppet. LeBron’s can go in summer storage.
With the city’s most famous athlete, Tiger Woods, sitting courtside, Orlando made believers of all those who wondered if they were better than the Cavaliers, a team that won 66 games in the regular season, or the defending champion Boston Celtics.
The Magic made both disappear in the postseason.
James scored 25 in his worst game of the series, but the 24-year-old was magnificent for most of it, adding to a legacy still in its infancy. But the league MVP had to do most of it alone, as Mo Williams lost his shooting touch and Cleveland’s bench was badly outplayed by Orlando’s reserves.
Delonte West added 22 and Williams 17 for Cleveland, which went 0-5 in Orlando.
During the closing minutes, James was mocked by Orlando’s crowd singing “M-V-P” as Howard shot free throws.
And after Superman muscled underneath for a thunderous dunk with 2:21 left, the crowd moved into finals mode chanting, “Beat L.A.!”
Howard’s one flaw has been his free-throw shooting, but he made 12 of 16 in Game 6.
The Magic’s season hasn’t been without its share of turmoil. Point guard Jameer Nelson sustained a season-ending shoulder injury in early February, a setback that at the time seemed as if it would prevent Orlando from doing anything special this year.
But general manager Otis Smith acquired guard Rafer Alston in a trade with Houston. Alston, a former playground legend, fit in perfectly. In the opening round against Philadelphia, the Magic lost the opener before rebounding and winning a close-out Game 6 on the road.
Then, following Game 5 of the Boston series, Howard called out Van Gundy for not getting him the ball enough and challenged his substitution patterns. The Magic shook off that spat, too, winning two straight, including Game 7 on Boston’s parquet.
In the conference finals, they beat Cleveland with a devastating mix of inside power and outside firepower.
All year, the Cavaliers ended their pregame huddle the same way, with James leading them in a cheer he used with his high school team.
“One, two, three,” James said.
“Hard work,” they replied.
“Four, five, six,” he offered.
“Championship,” they yelled.
But when the final horn sounded, James could only pull out his jersey and walk slowly off the floor just as he did last year after losing Game 7 in Boston. As great as James was, this wasn’t his season, and once again Cleveland fans will feel nothing but heartache as they wait for a team to end the city’s 45-year championship drought.
Everything that could go wrong did in the first half for the Cavaliers.
They couldn’t stop Howard in the paint and when Cleveland’s defense focused its efforts on containing him, the Magic worked the ball around the arc and took turns launching 3-pointers.
Lewis and Alston drained 3s late in the second quarter as the shoot-first-ask-questions-later Magic built an 18-point halftime lead. On Cleveland’s last possession before halftime, James, who didn’t score in the period, drove the lane and missed a runner while being knocked to the floor.
He sat there in disbelief, looking for a call, looking for help, looking lost.
Cleveland’s coaching staff stormed off barking at the officiating crew and coach Mike Brown was assessed a technical.
When the Cavs came back out after halftime, Howard was practicing his free throws. As he walked toward Cleveland’s bench, injured forward Lorenzen Wright, dressed in a suit, jumped up and grabbed the net to try and knock out one of Howard’s attempts.
The shot dropped in anyway, another symbolic moment.
A little more Magic.