Most NBA fans, whether they're aware of it or not, believe in manifest destiny. Whether it was their aversion to refs or their belief in puppets, everyone thought the Finals would be a Kobe-LeBron duel.
A new hero put himself on the map with a Magic 103-90 victory over the Cavaliers Saturday.
This playoff series may be remembered for LeBron James' failure to reach to Finals, but it should be remembered for his counterpart.
James scored 25 points off of 20 shots. Dwight Howard scored 40 points off of 21 shots. No matter how you slice it, Howard has taken a city's faith in Cleveland and put it in Orlando, where it has rarely been seen.
The Magic have one Finals appearance in their 20 years. Two on Thursday. Their last appearance was in 1995, with a team led by Penny Hardaway and Shaquille O'Neal.
O'Neal was an emerging center. At 22, he finished second in MVP voting, and led the league in scoring. Since then, O'Neal has won four championships, three Finals MVPs, two scoring titles, and now he sits at second on the all-time field goal percentage list behind only Artis Gilmore.
He represented everything that everyone loved in the NBA. He was a smack-talker who could fulfill his words and yet, a comedian. Now 14 years later, Howard has become the same figure.
O'Neal may be the most dominant offensive center of all time. Howard is establishing himself on the defensive end, leading the league in rebounding twice in a row, and winning Defensive Player of the Year.
Greg Oden once said, "Who says a big man can't sell?" Nike said so in its "Most Valuble Puppets" commercials with Kobe and LeBron. The faces of the NBA are ball-handlers. After Steve Nash's consecutive MVPs, the NBA has been led by James, Bryant, Chris Paul, and Dwyane Wade.
In the midst of three rounds of playoff action, only two superstars have survived. And now Howard has the chance to put big men back on top as they have been throughout NBA history.
Living in Boston, I've been able to see how it feels when your team sucks and they finally win it all, and when your team unexpectedly wins it all. There's no feeling quite like an athlete giving you faith down the stretch.
Los Angeles has seen Bryant win it three times before. Even if Howard doesn't win it, Orlando will have enjoyed the ride and will know for years to come that as long as they have Howard, they are championship contenders.
Two years ago, Orlando didn't have anything close to this confidence. The Magic, 40-42 were nowhere near what they now are.
Howard, not yet a superstar, was a member of the third all-NBA team. Hedo Turkoglu was a year away from becoming the NBA's Most Improved Player. Rashard Lewis, on the Sonics, finished off a second consecutive losing season. Mickael Pietrus was on the Warriors' bench. Rafer Alson made it past the first round once.
Stan Van Gundy, now the coach of the Magic, had resigned from the Heat for family-related reasons, as he said. Rumors had been circulating all year about Pat Riley wanting to come out of the front office to coach the Heat and he coached them to the championship that year.
Two years later, Riley has quit coaching after the Heat finished dead last in the NBA. Now Van Gundy is coaching a division rival in the Finals.
Howard has taken the NBA by surprise after fans were tricked into believing in a Kobe-LeBron Finals. Now Orlando, if only for a moment, is on top of the world.
With great power comes great responsibility. James was expected to save Cleveland, but the real hero has emerged.
Howard has led the Magic to the Finals. O'Neal, the self-proclaimed Superman, may have some competition. With Howard signed through 2013, the Magic can be confident that Howard, unlike O'Neal when he left, will be dominating the NBA and giving Orlando a championship-caliber team for years to come.