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Romano: Dwight Howard wants his Orlando Magic to make late change to NBA's dance card

ORLANDO — It is not like the NBA postseason is headed for ruin. Honestly, this is easily fixed.

You take that dream matchup David Stern was hoping for — you know that Kobe Bryant vs. LeBron James business — and just modify it. Tweak it. Give it a new-age feel.

How does Kobe Bryant vs. Rashard Lewis strike you?

Or Kobe Bryant vs. Rafer Alston?

Because it certainly looks like we're heading in that direction. One week into the Eastern Conference final and the Orlando Magic is threatening to become one of the NBA's most surprising interlopers.

Alston and Lewis buried Cleveland with 3-pointers in the second half, and center Dwight Howard took over in overtime as Orlando beat the top-seeded Cavaliers 116-114 in Game 4 Tuesday night.

"We've had a history of guys stepping up," Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy said. "I think it's good in a lot of ways that we're not reliant on one or two guys."

And now, with a 3-1 series lead, the Magic needs only one victory to return to the NBA Finals for the first time in 14 years.

If the commissioner's — and network television's — dream matchup does not become reality, do not blame James. He scored 44 in Game 4, including two free throws with 0.5 seconds left in regulation, and an off-balance 3-pointer with 4.1 seconds remaining in overtime that gave the Cavs one final breath.

"That 3 he hit was out of this world," Van Gundy said. "This guy is unbelievable. The stuff he is doing in this series is unbelievable. I'm proud of our guys for just hanging in there with what he is doing."

James has the TV commercials, the scoring title and the MVP award. He has referees clearing his path, and announcers singing his praises. He may even have traces of Michael Jordan in his basketball DNA.

But, the reality is, until James wins an NBA title, it looks like so much decoration.

It's not fair, but it's a superstar's burden. And it doesn't help his cause that Cleveland was the class of the conference during the regular season, but has been found lacking in May.

Do you know how many NBA teams have won 66 or more games in a season? There were 11 before the Cavs pulled it off this season. And nine of those 11 went on to win the NBA championship.

It kind of highlights the pressure on Cleveland and James in this series. And it points out the historic nature of Orlando's upset opportunity.

Howard is not unaware of the story lines. His smile never seems to dim, but that does not mean he is immune to the chatter. As good as he is, Howard is not the league's marquee player. He is not even No. 2.

The basketball world has been prepping for a dream matchup between James and Bryant, and Howard's Magic was supposed to be nothing more than a speed bump.

"We find it really disrespectful that everybody seems to be pulling for LeBron and Kobe to get to the Finals," Howard wrote on his blog in between Games 3 and 4. "Every time I look at TV, it seems like that's all anybody is talking about. It's like nobody is even giving us a shot at winning this series and we've used it as motivation.

"If the lil' ol' Magic make it, what will they say then?"

Still, there are times when Howard simply disappears. Sometimes it is because of foul trouble. Sometimes it is because he loses his place in the flow of the game. In Game 3, he went more than 20 minutes without getting a point when he picked up some early fouls. In Game 4, he scored 11 of Orlando's first 19 points. And then got only two of the next 49.

But the difference in the two teams is the depth of the rosters. James is Cleveland's only answer at clutch time, but the Magic seems to have a new hero every night. This time it was Alston, who finished with 26 points after hitting 6-of-12 3-pointers.

"Rafer was big for them tonight," Cleveland coach Mike Brown said. "Their team as a whole from the 3-point line was huge. Going in we knew that was a problem with that team."

With perimeter shooters keeping Orlando alive in the second half, Howard had a chance to re-emerge when needed most. He scored 10 of his 27 in overtime, including a pair of free throws with 21 seconds remaining.

"You've got to give him credit for knocking down free throws again," Brown said. "He's shooting 67 percent from the line in the postseason, but he's making them whenever they need him to make them."

Kobe Bryant vs. Hedo Turkoglu?

Kobe Bryant vs. Dwight Howard?

So maybe it isn't what the commissioner had in mind. But, you know, it doesn't sound so bad.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Romano: Dwight Howard wants his Orlando Magic to make late change to NBA's dance card 05/26/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 27, 2009 6:33am]
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