The franchise player is years away from realizing his potential, the secondary star is lavishly overpaid, the locker room has been bereft of leadership since the point guard was injured, the Turkish small forward is too passive and the French sixth man thinks he's a better shooter than he really is. That only makes him fit right in on this team, which puts up way too many three-pointers to be taken seriously, and whose coach screams so much that he's guaranteed to lose his players—a bunch of softies who can't play defense and lack the experience to beat the likes of the Celtics and the Cavaliers and, especially, the Lakers. ¬∂ So has read the book on the Magic at various times this season. But with one unlikely playoff win after another, Orlando has been erasing each and every one of those presumptions. And now, with the NBA Finals commencing this Thursday, who's to say the Magic won't continue its revision of conventional wisdom by upending the favored Lakers?
Already Orlando has succeeded in ruining the globally anticipated Finals between Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. By ousting James's top-seeded Cavaliers last Saturday with a 103--90 win at home in Game 6 of the Eastern finals—which would have ended in a sweep if not for a memorable (but ultimately inconsequential) three at the buzzer from LeBron in Game 2—the No. 3 Magic has positioned itself to become the lowest conference seed to win a championship since 1995. That was when the Rockets set the modern standard for NBA upsets as a No. 6 seed when they swept, yes, the Magic, at that time led by 23-year-old center Shaquille O'Neal.
Now Orlando is in its second Finals, led by another 23-year-old franchise center. Dwight Howard rebutted any doubts about his readiness in Game 6, exploding for two-handed dunks and banking in soft leaners and jump hooks for a career postseason high of 40 points. His coming-of-age performance came just as LeBron was threatening to go Bruce Lee and take out the Magic all by himself—the league MVP averaged an astonishing 38.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 8.0 assists, and he had extended the series by scoring or assisting on 32 consecutive points in a virtuoso fourth-quarter performance to win Game 5 in Cleveland.
No less surprising than Orlando's win was the team's reaction. After the King had been silenced and the conference trophy awarded, the Orlando locker room was surprisingly quiet. The young Magic players were behaving like veterans who had been this far before, even though they had entered this postseason with but one series win as a group.
So the question becomes: How did so many fail to notice the championship potential that now seems so obvious?
It isn't too late to address the misunderstandings and rewrite the book on Orlando:
• In fact, the secondary star is worth the money. Although Rashard Lewis made the All-Star team while averaging 17.7 points this season, the mammoth contract he signed as a free agent in July 2007—$118.5 million over six years—was condemned by rival executives as much too rich for a power forward who isn't an A-list scorer, rebounder (5.7 per game this season) or shot blocker (0.65). But Magic general manager Otis Smith wanted a versatile frontcourt talent who was selfless enough to defer to Howard and therefore accelerate the young center's development, and this postseason has borne out the investment. Lewis is the rare knockdown shooter who doesn't need to constantly pull the trigger. "I didn't come to this team to try to win a scoring title," he says.
Lewis's value isn't measured as much by his numbers—though he did average 19.4 points throughout the Eastern playoffs—as by the cold-blooded timing of his baskets. He erased the Cavs' lead with a three to win Game 1 with 14.7 seconds left. With Orlando trailing by a point with 6.4 seconds remaining in regulation of Game 4, he skirted past a Howard screen and pirouetted in the left corner for a highly difficult catch-and-shoot three that he executed as casually as a pregame warmup shot. Orlando went on to win in overtime. There should be no further second-guessing of Lewis's value if he buries one or two more of those pivotal shots in the Finals.
• The Turkish small forward isn't always passive, and the French sixth man can shoot. As a teenager he was essentially the Turkish LeBron in his native Istanbul. Yet during Hedo Turkoglu's initial seven seasons with the Kings, Spurs and Magic, he was too willing to fit in, to the point where he tended to disappear. "The unfortunate thing with him—and I'm not speaking behind his back, he's heard it all—is that when he doesn't bring the energy, a lot of times he's mediocre," says Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy, who so successfully force-fed Turkoglu that he won the NBA's Most Improved Player award in 2008.
Early this season Turkoglu was reverting to his old passive ways, but that changed in February when point guard Jameer Nelson suffered a shoulder injury. During key fourth-quarter stretches the 6'10" Turkoglu shifted into the role of point guard, and against the Cavs he exploited a Magic Johnson--like view of the court against 6'3" guard Delonte West. "If he's making good plays and decisions, that's usually when we're at our best," Van Gundy says.
Mickael Pietrus has been another reclamation project. Known as an athletic defender when he was drafted No. 11 by the Warriors in 2003, the 6'6" French swingman had the bad luck of playing for Don Nelson, who neither valued defense nor trusted Pietrus's jumper. Pietrus signed with Orlando last summer, and he overcame injuries to his right thumb, right wrist and right knee to scorch Cleveland by shooting 47.2% from long distance—he personally outscored the Cavs bench, 13.8 points to 11.0—while hectoring James for significant stretches. "With the Warriors that was the first time in my life that I really didn't enjoy basketball," says Pietrus in his lyrical French accent. "When I came here they always show me love, and so I want to give that love back."
• Orlando's not a soft team that mindlessly bombs away and doesn't play D. Ranked second in the league with 10.0 three-pointers per game this season, the Magic shredded a respected Cleveland defense that's geared to keep points out of the paint. But it's important to note that the three-jacking is a means as well as an end: Orlando players spot up around the arc to create space inside for Howard, who provides a post presence that is mandatory for a championship team.
This season the Magic ranked No. 6 in scoring defense, No. 3 in field goal defense, No. 2 in three-point defense, No. 1 in defensive rebounding, and they had the Defensive Player of the Year in Howard. This is a team of skilled scorers who are pushed to defend by the constant scolding (to put it nicely) of Van Gundy, a longtime Heat assistant who, like his younger brother Jeff, is a graduate of the Pat Riley school of relentless defense.
• The coach screams too much ... but that's O.K. Van Gundy worries about permanent damage to his throat. "You're supposed to speak from down," he says as he presses his expansive chest, "and I don't. I'm just speaking out of my throat." But less important to his players than the volume of his delivery is the content. "You've got to get past the yelling and listen to the message," says point guard Rafer Alston, whose acquisition in a three-team deal minutes before the February trading deadline enabled Orlando to weather the loss of Nelson. Alston is expert in the Van Gundy method, having played previously for Stan at Miami and Jeff at Houston. "The only [problem] that a lot of us have with Stan is we may take it in a way that he's [criticizing] our character towards the game, our approach, our manhood," says Alston. "Him and Jeff, they're the two coaches I've allowed to say a lot of things to me. And the reason is, I understand the amount of work they put into their job, how much it means to them and how much they care. They can cross the line with me because I know exactly where they're coming from."
As the horn sounded to launch the second half of Game 6, Howard remained locked into his preshot routine at the free throw line: a spin of the ball, two dribbles, another dribble and the release. The Cavaliers returned to the court, and he paid them no mind until Cleveland center Lorenzen Wright, inactive and dressed in a gray suit, looking to upset Howard's rhythm, reached up through the cylinder to try to swat a free throw away; the ball tumbled back through the rim anyway. Wright tried to approach the free throw line for a chat, but Howard coldly shook his head, and Wright retreated to his bench.
Almost every second-guessed move the Magic has made over the last two years has been aimed at bringing out the best in Howard. Yet Orlando might not have made it to these Finals if not for a statement made by Howard himself. After a crushing Game 5 loss in the conference semifinals in Boston that dumped the Magic in a 3--2 hole, Howard publicly demanded a greater role in crunch time. "You've got a dominant player. Let him be dominant," said Howard after being limited to 10 shots in 37 minutes. "I have to get the ball."
Given the existing misgivings about the Magic, Howard's criticism of his coach in the heat of the playoffs seemed to be an omen of impending doom. Yet the truth, like so much else about this team, was the opposite of what it seemed. In fact, the outburst was a sign of hope. It was the long-awaited signal that Howard was ready to lead.
That night Smith and Van Gundy met until 5 a.m. to discuss how to deal with Howard's outburst, and four hours later they held a team meeting to clear the air. Since then the responsibility has been Howard's to make good on his demand. He was the one calling for the ball in the clutch—what was he going to do with it? Since then Howard has averaged a breakout 23.8 points (3.8 more than he had been scoring previously in the playoffs) while driving the Magic to wins in six of eight games against the top two teams in the East. In the last four games he hit 71.9% of his free throws (an upgrade from his 59.4% rate during the season), which has enabled his teammates to play through him down the stretch.
Will his play carry over into the Finals? Similar to the dynamic of its series against LeBron, the Magic won both of its regular-season games against the Lakers while absorbing big performances from Bryant. Nelson played a major role in those victories, but maybe Howard is prepared to finish what his injured teammate started, to deliver on his own gargantuan promise, and with the trophy in hand dispel the naysaying about his team, once and for all.
How did so many fail to notice the championship potential that now seems so obvious?
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Photograph by BOB ROSATO
ALL NIGHT STRONG As Howard threw down 40 points in the series clincher against Cleveland, James saw his season come to an end.
Photographs by BOB ROSATO
FREE AT LAST Liberated from Golden State, Pietrus has unleashed a lethal blend of threes and D.
Photograph by BOB ROSATO
DRIVER'S EDGE Turkoglu began to play more aggressively when his ball handling duties increased.
Photographs by BOB ROSATO
TIMING PATTERN Lewis, often deferential on offense, still shoots without fear when the game is on the line.