As the fourth quarter buzzer sounded in the packed Amway Arena, the Orlando Magic took a big sigh of relief.
The "masters of panic" had held on to another valuable playoff lead, but it wasn't Hedo Turkgolu's stellar shooting or Rashard Lewis being lights out from the three that helped them cling onto the lead.
Howard's free-throw shooting had saved the day for the Magic. A rare occurrence to say the least, Howard, notorious for clanking a mere 60 percent at the line, made 14-of-19 Sunday night. Just like that, Magic have a controlling lead in this series.
But have the Magic been lucky with their route to the Eastern Conference finals?
Now they face a Cavs team who have no answer for Howard's inside presence and they put immense pressure on LeBron's ability to get to the basket with Howard, Lewis, and Turkgolu all standing at 6' 10" or taller.
Throughout all of Game Three, Orlando seemed in control as they took an early lead and didn't seem to lose their heads when Cleveland took a narrow lead halfway through the game.
Their calm collected play brought victory as they controlled the tempo of the game and seemed to outsmart the Cavalier's with their inside-outside game. The Cavaliers never seemed in the game offensively, seeming to throw all their energy into preventing Howard from scoring at the basket although he was only on for 25 minutes of the game. He still stuffed the stat sheet, yet again, with 24 points and nine rebounds.
The Amway Arena crowed seemed surprisingly pumped giving the Magic that extra edge over the cold shooting Cavs.
There was a confidence about the Magic—they knew who they were up against and they weren't scared.
LeBron scored 41 points in Game Three and is filling up the stat sheet every night as well as sending a last second dagger through the heart's of every Magic fan in the world, but he is by no means dominating this series.
Orlando accepts that there is no way you can stop LeBron in the playoffs—he can score at will, but what James can't do is score all his teams points and this is where the Magic have the edge.
They let LeBron work, but they limit his teammates.
This plan seemed evident on Sunday night as the Magic upped the defensive pressure forcing the Cavs to shoot just 19 percent from beyond the arc. Mo Williams, the Cav's second highest scorer, went on the night with 15 shots, and just 5-of-16 from the field. Magic limited Big Z to just 3-of-10, and Cleveland had no other major contributors outside of LeBron.
Game One saw normal production from the Cav's role players.
Game Two showed slightly less contribution.
Game Three saw almost no stat help for LeBron. The other four starters had 40 points combined and LeBron added another 41 to that score.
Magic have found the Cav's weakness and if they continue to constantly pressure and dominate the Cav's role players with athletic defenders such as Courtney Lee and Mikael Pietrus, shutting down the likes of Mo Williams and Delonte West this series will be done in six games, and the Magic will roll onto the finals.
Although, watching Stan Van Gundy in the press conference after the game there was a sense that Van Gundy knows his team got lucky and have been lucky. The Magic are shooting well with fantastic ball movement leading to open shots, but if the Cavs adjust their defensive plan of throwing bodies at Howard when he gets the ball those open looks will disappear and the Magic's sizzling shooting streak could come to an abrupt end.
Howard won't score 14-of-19 free throws every night.
That said, Turkgolu shot a terrible 1-of-11, yet players such as Alston stepped up giving a solid 15-point game. Orlando have an abundance of players ready to step up and contribute.
Mikael Pietrus is a prime example of this. Throughout every series, he has contributed off the bench especially Game Seven of the Boston series bringing athleticism on both the offensive and defensive end and on Sunday throwing in 16 points.
The term "Title Contender" is used loosely on teams we expect to give in during the conference finals such as the Cavs against the mighty Celtics last year. Yet in both the Eastern and Western finals, we are seeing "Title Contenders" surprising the teams we expect to win the championship.
Don't be surprised to see the Nuggets or Magic lift the trophy next month.