Magic Thinks It Matches Up With Cavaliers

"They'll probably say we don't have a chance [against Cleveland]," said Magic forward Rashard Lewis, shooting around Boston's Paul Pierce. (By Elsa -- Getty Images)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 20, 2009

After the Orlando Magic finally answered its rallying cry -- "You have to beat the champs to be the champs" -- with a 101-82 victory over the Boston Celtics in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on Sunday, Dwight Howard stood in front of a television in the visitors' locker room at TD Banknorth Garden, watching TNT's "Inside the NBA."

Howard and his teammates were eager to hear an instant critique of the performance that put Orlando in the conference finals for the first time since 1996. Rashard Lewis sat back in a corner, straining to catch a glimpse but unable to see past a 6-foot-11 obstruction.

"Dwight, they saying we going to lose to Cleveland?" Lewis asked.

"Nah," Howard said. "They're talking about the Lakers."

Disappointed that their win wasn't yet the topic of discussion, the Magic players went back to getting dressed. But Lewis's question showed how much they expect to be counted out against the Cavaliers, who won a league-best 66 games and have the NBA's most valuable player in LeBron James and coach of the year in Mike Brown. Cleveland also has been flawless this postseason, going 8-0 against Detroit and Atlanta, winning all eight contests by at least 10 points.

"By going to the Eastern Conference finals, I'm sure people are going to say Cleveland is going to get it. They'll probably say we don't have a chance," Lewis said, heading into Game 1 on tonight at Quicken Loans Arena. "But we still got to go out there and play the game."

Unlike the Pistons and Hawks -- teams that played as if they either didn't want to be there or were just happy to be there -- the Magic isn't intimidated by Cleveland. Orlando players believe they can compete with and possibly defeat the Cavaliers in a seven-game series. It is one of two teams to have a winning record against Cleveland this season -- the Los Angeles Lakers are the other. The Magic claimed two of three in the regular season, including a 116-87 whipping in its last meeting with Cleveland on April 3, when Orlando led by 41 points.

"We feel very good about our matchup," said Anthony Johnson, the Magic's veteran point guard. "They are a tough team to beat, but we feel we can go in, get one win, maybe two" in Cleveland.

The Cavaliers haven't played in more than a week and haven't lost a game with James in uniform since losing back-to-back games to Washington and Orlando last month. "From what I've seen, Cleveland is playing at a higher level than anyone in the playoffs," Magic Coach Stan Van Gundy said, "so we're going to have to take it up another notch. Right now, you know, you can have a championship in the back of your mind as a goal. Every team, every player, every organization should. But right now, it's about trying to get one win against Cleveland."

The Magic has no one to contend with James, but it presents matchup problems for the Cavaliers with Howard and the 6-10, three-point shooting forward tandem of Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu, who combined for 44 points in the series clincher against Boston.

Orlando also is feeling confident after coming back from a 3-2 deficit to win the last two games and dethrone the defending champion Celtics. "You've got to give them a shooters' chance. You really do," Celtics Coach Doc Rivers said about Orlando's chances against Cleveland. "I wouldn't be shocked at all to see them win this next series."

The Magic players appeared to be in a constant internal battle during their series against the Celtics, forming a maddening bunch with considerable talent but a frustrating inability to stay focused for an entire game. Orlando appeared to finally get over that hurdle after a Game 5 loss in which the Magic blew a 14-point fourth-quarter lead. An hour later, Howard sat in front of a microphone, called out Van Gundy and demanded more touches. But instead of putting the weight of the season on his shoulders, he essentially sent a message to his teammates that they had to do more. Howard said the response of the team afterward was a sign of how much Orlando has matured this postseason.

"It's a journey and a learning experience for all of us," Howard said. "I believe we can win a championship and we aren't going to stop going after one until we get it. We have the right team. We have the talent. We have the right coaches and it's on us to go out there every night and play hard. It starts with me."

For Cleveland, it all starts with James. But Lewis said he expects Howard to provide the same obstacle to James's path to the rim as he did keeping Lewis from seeing the television after Game 7. "Cleveland is a great team. They deserve a lot of the attention that they get," Lewis said. "We've been flying under the radar. But you know, winning ballgames takes care of all that."

In the locker room, Lewis tried to look up at the television again.

"They still talking about the Lakers, Dwight?"

Howard answered with silence. The two players didn't even stick around to hear Charles Barkley pick Orlando to beat the Cavaliers.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company