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Orlando Magic trumps Cleveland Cavaliers' one-man team that is LeBron James

ORLANDO — There was a moment early in this series when Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy ridiculed his players during a timeout. Witnesses, he mockingly called them. As if they had all been mesmerized by the majesty of LeBron James' game.

The ploy seemed to work, because the Magic came back from a big Game 1 deficit and split the first two games in Cleveland to snatch homecourt advantage in the Eastern Conference final.

It actually worked so well, you almost wonder why we haven't heard it again.

You know, from Cleveland coach Mike Brown.

The Orlando Magic beat the Cleveland LeBrons 99-89 Sunday night in Game 3 to take a 2-1 series lead and move two victories away from its first NBA Finals since 1995.

There is a Nike ad that suggests we are all witnesses in the era of King James, and no one seems to have embraced this role more than the court jesters in Cleveland. It isn't just that James is always Cleveland's leading scorer. That's pretty much a given. But does he have to lead the team in postseason rebounds, too? And assists? And steals?

Is there no one to play Robin? Has Tonto left town? Um, Lois Lane?

"If I could clone myself," James said in a moment of levity before the game, "I'd be all right."

He is the greatest player on the planet and is in danger of losing another playoff series. Come to think of it, maybe James really is following in Michael Jordan's footsteps.

Jordan came up short in his first six trips to the playoffs in the 1980s. It wasn't until he got Scottie Pippen and a host of other sidekicks that he won the first of his six NBA championship rings.

And James could be following the same path.

Here, then, is the difference between these franchises:

Hedo Turkoglu could go the entire first half without a field goal and the Magic could still have a lead. Dwight Howard could sit on the bench for 14 of the game's first 24 minutes and the Magic could still have a lead.

But if James has an off-night, the LeBrons are in trouble.

And now, so is their season.

I suppose in a way we should be grateful. Because this series was supposed to be a dress rehearsal, a quick run-through for James on his way to a showdown with Kobe Bryant in the NBA Finals.

That is, until the Magic showed what a little teamwork and a lot of spunk can accomplish. James scored 49 points in Game 1. And it didn't matter. He scored 35 in Game 2. And the LeBrons needed every single one of them. He scored 41 with nine assists in Game 3, and it still wasn't enough.

"If anybody has seriously followed our team and thinks they have to do more to prove their ability to overcome adversity, to have resilience, to come back after tough times, then I don't think it's being fair," Van Gundy said. "Our guys have proven all of that. Now will we win this series? I don't know.

"But I don't think our guys have anything to prove in terms of character or mental toughness."

Orlando began the night on a roll. The Magic had a plan, it had momentum, it had the game won. Unfortunately, the plan began to unravel after, oh, about three minutes.

From the opening tip, the Magic was intent on pounding the ball inside to Howard. This seemed like a smart idea because the team's centerpiece player had barely been a part of the offense in Game 2.

So, on five of the first six offensive possessions, Howard was either taking shots or kicking the ball back out for a perimeter shot. Barely three minutes into the game, the Magic led 9-2 and Howard had six points, two rebounds and one assist. Simple, right?

Except over the next 20 minutes, Howard had zero points, one rebound and one assist.

That is what foul trouble will do to a game plan. Howard picked up his second foul about five minutes into the game and spent the rest of the first quarter on the bench. Seems like it would have been a good lesson, except it was apparently lost on Howard. He picked up foul No. 3 early in the second and returned to the bench.

Which explains why Marcin Gortat had nearly twice as many minutes as Howard by intermission. It might also explain why the Magic was clinging to a 42-41 lead at that point.

But that is part of the beauty of the Magic. It can absorb off nights. It can adjust when plans go awry. It can handle problems because more than one player is capable of making a difference on the court.

"If I had LeBron James, I would try to get him 30 shots a game, too," Van Gundy said. "But we're not that kind of team."

No, the Magic is a better team.

Orlando Magic trumps Cleveland Cavaliers' one-man team that is LeBron James 05/24/09 [Last modified: Monday, May 25, 2009 7:23am]
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