ORLANDO — Dwight Howard fired off a simple text message to his Magic teammates on the eve of Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final against the LeBron James-led Cavaliers:
"Think about dominating."
They did, following his lead.
Howard scored a playoff career-high 40 points in a 103-90 win Saturday at raucous, sold-out Amway Arena that sends his team to the NBA Finals for the second time in franchise history and the first time since Shaquille O'Neal led the Magic to the Finals against Houston in 1995.
"I believe in my team," Howard said. "If we come out and play our brand of basketball, we can beat anybody."
Up next are the Western Conference champion Lakers in the NBA Finals, which start Thursday, a matchup that spoils the highly anticipated Kobe Bryant showdown with James.
Not that Howard is a bad last-minute change to the programming. Not the way he played from start to finish on this night.
Howard hit 14 of 21 shots from the field on powerful dunks, running hooks and dazzling drives. And he went 12-of-16 from the line, not bad for a guy who didn't even shoot 60 percent from the line during the season. He added 14 rebounds and four assists.
"They didn't do anything tricky," Cleveland coach Mike Brown said. "They put Dwight Howard on the post. When we tried to double-team him, he did a heck of a job of passing out of the double team, and their guys stepped up and made shots. When we didn't double team him, he did a heck of a job scoring. Not only that, he rebounded. You have to give him credit. He was a monster tonight."
James, the league's regular-season MVP, had 25 points (8-of-20 shooting), seven rebounds and seven assists.
He didn't talk to the media after the game; he dressed and left the arena.
The Magic came out looking like a team intent on making something happen, with Howard setting the tone with his assertiveness and relentlessness on offense.
Howard had 21 points and four offensive rebounds in the opening half alone. And in a play that epitomized the half, he outran forward Anderson Varejao downcourt, caught a long pass from reserve guard Anthony Johnson in stride and avoided James for a fastbreak dunk and a 49-34 lead.
With James not shooting much in the second quarter (0-for-3) and his teammates largely misfiring, the Magic took a seemingly commanding 58-40 halftime lead.
When James didn't draw a foul on a drive in the final seconds of the half, Brown drew a technical as he was leaving the court. It gave the Magic a free throw before the second half began. But after that made free throw, the Cavaliers went on an 8-0 run in less than minute, capped by a James pullup 3-pointer, to cut the deficit to 59-48.
Howard, however, had an answer whenever his team needed one.
He turned offensive rebounds into baskets, he drove for a dunk, he hit a hook, and he hit 2 of 3 free throws.
When the Cavs tried to double-team him, he found open teammates for easy shots, including forward Mickael Pietrus for a layup and an 86-70 lead to end the third quarter and never really looked back.
"We just rode him in the post in the fourth quarter," Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said.
"I don't know what else he could have done today. He was fantastic. … He was unbelievable."
|Lakers vs. Magic|
|Thurs.||at Los Angeles, 9, Ch. 28|
|June 7||at Los Angeles, 8, Ch. 28|
|June 9||at Orlando, 9, Ch. 28|
|June 11||at Orlando, 9, Ch. 28|
|June 14||at Orlando, 8, Ch. 28*|
|June 16||at Los Angeles, 9, Ch. 28*|
|June 18||at Los Angeles, 9, Ch. 28 *|
* if needed
|Magic 4, Cavaliers 2|
|Game 1||Magic 107, Cavaliers 106|
|Game 2||Cavaliers 96, Magic 95|
|Game 3||Magic 99, Cavaliers 89|
|Game 4||Magic 116, Cavaliers 114 OT|
|Game 5||Cavaliers 112, Magic 102|
|Saturday||Magic 103, Cavaliers 90|