ORLANDO, Fla. - The Orlando Magic never gave in. They didn’t buckle when their starting point guard went down with a season-ending injury. They regrouped when their frustrated superstar called out their coach. They stood up to the Boston Celtics. They sent LeBron James home.
They fought — all the way to the NBA Finals.
Kobe vs. LeBron?
Not this year.
Dwight Howard dominated inside for 40 points, Rashard Lewis added 18 and the overlooked Magic wrecked the Kobe-LeBron dream finals with a 103-90 victory over James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 6 to win the Eastern Conference championship Saturday night.
“Total domination,” Lewis said of Howard. “He totally dominated the game. He carried us on his back tonight.”
Fourteen frustrating years since their last appearance, the Magic are back from ruin.
“I don’t think people thought we could be at this level,” coach Stan Van Gundy said.
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 and wrecked the franchise. Six years ago they won just 21 games, a low point that helped them draft Howard with No. 1 pick.
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.
Oh, and memo to Nike executives: It’s time to break out the Howard puppet. LeBron’s can go in summer storage.
For now, the only matchup between James and Lakers superstar Bryant will have to be limited to those cute TV commercials.
With the city’s most famous athlete, Tiger Woods, sitting courtside, Orlando dropped 12 3-pointers and 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 Celtics.
The Magic made both disappear.
“For us as a team, we understand how everybody has talked about us for the last couple of years,” Howard said. “We can beat anybody.”
James scored 25 in his worst game of the series, but the 24-year-old MVP was magnificent for most of it, adding to a legacy still in its infancy. But Mo Williams lost his shooting touch and Cleveland’s bench was badly outplayed by Orlando’s reserves.
Afterward, James put on headphones and stormed out of Amway Arena.
He skipped the news conference and briskly walked down the corridor with two security guards as escorts. He plopped into a chair to be scanned for the team’s charter plane ride, grabbed his bags and was gone — a special season ending in stunning disappointment.
“We had one goal and we came up short,” Cavs coach Mike Brown said.
During the closing minutes, James was mocked by Orlando’s crowd singing “M-V-P” as Howard shot free throws.
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.
Inside. Outside. The Magic had it all.
Cleveland may have had the best player. Orlando had the better team.
“Everybody’s hurting,” Cavs guard Daniel Gibson said. “It’s hard watching the dream go away with every 3-point shot they made.”
Y! Sports: For Roy Hibbert, a sense of ownership means knowing he should have fought to get in the game with two seconds remaining in overtime, when his absence allowed LeBron James to hit the winning lay-up.
Celebs shine at the NBA playoffs
A look at the many celebrities who have made appearances during this year's NBA playoffs.
Video: NBA from NBC Sports
Reason for optimism after Game 1 loss?
PBT Extra: The Heat snuck past the Pacers in the final seconds of overtime in Game 1, and PBT’s Kurt Helin breaks down where the Pacers can go from here. Paul George had a monster game, and Helin believes the Pacers have a real chance at upsetting the top-seeded Heat.
Latest from ProBasketballTalk
Get your NBA cheer on
Check out some of the dancers from the NBA.