- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 31, 2009

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, who can make 3-pointers drop from thin air, hit 12 of them in a 103-90 victory against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals 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.

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.

“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.”

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; 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 this season.

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.

In the conference finals, Orlando 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 their 45-year championship drought continues.

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