Dwight Howard To Blame for Orlando's Eastern Conference Heist

Robert Kleeman@@RobertKleemanSenior Analyst IJune 3, 2009

ORLANDO, FL - MAY 30:  Dwight Howard #12 of the Orlando Magic reacts after a play late in the game against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2009 Playoffs at Amway Arena on May 30, 2009 in Orlando, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

"I get no respect, I tell ya'. No respect."

—Rodney Dangerfield

The Orlando Magic are in the NBA Finals for the first time since 1995. You can't say you didn't see this coming.

The Cleveland Cavaliers failed to beat a full-strength championship contender on the road this year despite a sexy 66-win record and an absurd 39-2 home mark. One of the team's "impressive" road victories came against the San Antonio Spurs without Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili.

Even Cavaliers fans had to know the Carpathia would not save LeBron James if his jumpshot sunk to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

The Boston Celtics limped into the playoffs without spiritual leader and defensive stalwart Kevin Garnett and left them in the second round on a stretcher after a thorough Game Seven defeat.

After winning a wire-to-wire 103-90 clincher Saturday night that sent James fishing for answers and sportsmanship and sent Cleveland into another sports-induced funk, the Eastern Conference belongs to the Orlando Magic.

They visited Burger King in Philadelphia and Beantown and had it their way. Hopefully, someone on the team had the sense to knock that creep in the king costume unconscious. Maybe they collected all of those dinky Star Trek glasses, too.

Why should Cyndi Lauper and the rest of womankind get to have all of the fun?

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They survived another self-proclaimed king's 40 PPG worth of virtuosity. They withstood the hysteria thunderstorm of a shot that evoked memories of Craig Ehlo and Michael Jordan. A supposed franchise and series-changing shot proved to be more of the same for crestfallen Cleveland.

There are many words sports folk will use to describe Orlando's feel-good run. Use none of them.

Don't blame it on the aura of Magic Kingdom or David Blaine or David Copperfield. Even a magician would struggle to make the defending champions and LeBron James disappear. Don't call this a Walt Disney-approved ending. Resist the temptation to belt Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger."

No, chalk up this team's impressive run to the NBA Finals to hard work and Dwight Howard.  Lately, Howard and hard work have become synonyms.

Channel a famous freedom fighter if you must.

"First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win," Mahatma Gandhi once said.

How many of us laughed off the Magic as a one-trick pony without a proven superstar? How many sports writers grumbled every time they moved Orlando up a weekly power ranking?

Most credit given to the Magic during the regular season seemed half-hearted and insincere. Observers gave South Florida's team the cold shoulder despite a collection of more credible road wins than the Celtics and Cavs and as many as the Lakers.

How many teams could embark on a three-game jaunt to San Antonio, Denver, and Los Angeles and emerge unscathed? Two of those three squads boast players with three championship rings this decade.

Like so many others, I wrote that I would credit Howard as the game's best center when he earned such praise.

Welcome to your party, Mr. Howard. We ran out of ice cream and cheesecake an hour ago, but our flan and chocolate mousse are delightful. Might I interest you in some coffee?

Don't forget to take those streamers and balloons along with your Grand Canyon-wide smile.

Like an enraged, slighted brother at a wedding reception, Howard has announced in Twisted Sister fashion that he's not going to take it.

Like a deranged bulldozer at a frat party, Howard has the boys whizzing themselves and full attention of the men who still want to compete.

You think the Lakers will overlook this 6'11", 265-pound monster as they sometimes did to Nene, Chris Andersen, Luis Scola, and Chuck Hayes?

Pro basketball may be a team game, but Howard has stamped himself all over the Magic's run to the championship finish.

During that aforementioned road trip against division winners, it was starting point guard Jameer Nelson who pulled the deciding punches. He scored 27 and 28 points in Orlando's two victories over Los Angeles. A pair of dagger treys sunk the Spurs at the AT&T Center.

Nelson's cool-as-Epcot clutch shooting made the Magic special, not Howard, who still battled incessant foul trouble, lack of a go-to, low-post move, and poor free throw shooting.

Though Howard still needs considerable work in all three areas, he has improved the way a leader should.

When a shoulder ailment ended Nelson's season, Orlando lost its floor general and needed someone else to take the team's reigns.

Howard accepted the challenge and now looks like as much a no-brainer No. 1 pick as there can be.

Some of you wanted Orlando to take Emeka Okafor instead? Are you kidding me?

"To win you've got to stay in the game," Claude M. Bristol once said.

Too often before this year, Howard could not do that. His thirst for weak-side shot-blocking left him vulnerable to chest attacks, backdoor cuts, and guards with speed.

Instead of defending his man and forcing low-percentage shots, he tried to sheriff the paint with his hands. His guns fired blanks.

Few defenders were out of proper defensive position more than Howard. Remember what Rudy Fernandez did during the gold medal game in Beijing? Those kinds of poster dunks occurred so frequently that even Patrick Ewing had to think, "what the hell, young man?"

Now, when a scorer wanders into the paint and sees Howard, he knows where he can take his shot. It was never about the number of shots he could block in a game. It was about what he would do when his hand missed the ball.

No player can block everything.

Like Hakeem Olajuwon, Howard has learned the hard way that post and interior defense requires much more than the flap of a hand. It takes precise footwork, acumen, knowledge of the scouting report, physical and mental strength, and the ability to respond to the unexpected.

One-dimensional shot-blockers can be faked and driven into submission. They also hit the bench early with silly fouls.

Chris Andersen blocked one more shot a game this season than Tim Duncan and recorded nine of them in a first round laughter. Which player would you rather trust to defend the rim in the closing moments of a pivotal contest?

Howard has gone from ripped to forceful. He entered the NBA as a big man who could post eye-popping numbers.

Now, he drives them.

To imply that Orlando's run to the Finals is rooted in hocus pocus would discredit Howard's noticeable improvements. In many ways, the comical center embodies the Magic.

He is far from perfect. You sometimes wonder if his jocularity overrides his professionalism and competitive spirit. He can lose games as readily as he can win them.

When the Philadelphia 76ers stole the first game of the playoffs at Amway Arena, a Finals appearance looked as probable as a Goofy and Donald Duck gangster rap album (Can you picture the first single, "Quack, Quack" with a special from-jail cameo by T.I.?)

Howard and his Magic are easy to root for because they can stink and look as unready for the big moment as Britney Spears in a wedding dress.

After a game five loss to the Celtics in the second round, in which the Magic choked away a 14-point fourth-quarter lead, Howard slammed his teammates and coaches for failing to deliver him the ball. His venue of choice for the post-game antics showed immaturity. Even if the contents of his rant contained merit, he should never have blared his displeasure in such a public way.

What Howard did in the game following his press conference flub is why he will face Kobe Bryant and the Lakers tomorrow night instead of LeBron James.

Late in the final period of that Game Six against Boston, Howard demanded the ball the right way and KO'd the champs with an array of spins, fakes, and drives.

He has sometimes lagged behind Yao Ming in the best center discussion because of his perceived inability to close games.

Howard has slammed the door on that debate.

In the Eastern Conference Finals, he managed to produce like a superstar even when bogus fouls drawn by James limited his minutes.

In the fourth quarter of Game Four, Howard made more of his crunch-time foul shots than James. He swooshed 8-of-10 from behind the charity stripe while the MVP bricked 5-of-10.

Howard seized command of the decisive Game Six with a 40-point outing heard from the shores of Lake Eerie to the "It's a Small World After All" ride.

Thanks to South Florida's latest big fella, the Magic's world seems limitless in size. No longer relying only on his sheer athletic ability and bulky build, Howard has reaped the benefits of Bristol's simple advice: Stay in the game and win.

Can Howard do it four more times?

If so, it will be his hard work, not pixie dust or the Rocky theme song, that made it happen.