Mickael Pietrus has been another reclamation project. Known as an athletic defender when he was drafted No. 11 by the Warriors in 2003, the 6'6" French swingman had the bad luck of playing for Don Nelson, who neither valued defense nor trusted Pietrus's jumper. Pietrus signed with Orlando last summer, and he overcame injuries to his right thumb, right wrist and right knee to scorch Cleveland by shooting 47.2% from long distance—he personally outscored the Cavs bench, 13.8 points to 11.0—while hectoring James for significant stretches. "With the Warriors that was the first time in my life that I really didn't enjoy basketball," says Pietrus in his lyrical French accent. "When I came here they always show me love, and so I want to give that love back."
• Orlando's not a soft team that mindlessly bombs away and doesn't play D. Ranked second in the league with 10.0 three-pointers per game this season, the Magic shredded a respected Cleveland defense that's geared to keep points out of the paint. But it's important to note that the three-jacking is a means as well as an end: Orlando players spot up around the arc to create space inside for Howard, who provides a post presence that is mandatory for a championship team.
This season the Magic ranked No. 6 in scoring defense, No. 3 in field goal defense, No. 2 in three-point defense, No. 1 in defensive rebounding, and they had the Defensive Player of the Year in Howard. This is a team of skilled scorers who are pushed to defend by the constant scolding (to put it nicely) of Van Gundy, a longtime Heat assistant who, like his younger brother Jeff, is a graduate of the Pat Riley school of relentless defense.
• The coach screams too much ... but that's O.K. Van Gundy worries about permanent damage to his throat. "You're supposed to speak from down," he says as he presses his expansive chest, "and I don't. I'm just speaking out of my throat." But less important to his players than the volume of his delivery is the content. "You've got to get past the yelling and listen to the message," says point guard Rafer Alston, whose acquisition in a three-team deal minutes before the February trading deadline enabled Orlando to weather the loss of Nelson. Alston is expert in the Van Gundy method, having played previously for Stan at Miami and Jeff at Houston. "The only [problem] that a lot of us have with Stan is we may take it in a way that he's [criticizing] our character towards the game, our approach, our manhood," says Alston. "Him and Jeff, they're the two coaches I've allowed to say a lot of things to me. And the reason is, I understand the amount of work they put into their job, how much it means to them and how much they care. They can cross the line with me because I know exactly where they're coming from."
As the horn sounded to launch the second half of Game 6, Howard remained locked into his preshot routine at the free throw line: a spin of the ball, two dribbles, another dribble and the release. The Cavaliers returned to the court, and he paid them no mind until Cleveland center Lorenzen Wright, inactive and dressed in a gray suit, looking to upset Howard's rhythm, reached up through the cylinder to try to swat a free throw away; the ball tumbled back through the rim anyway. Wright tried to approach the free throw line for a chat, but Howard coldly shook his head, and Wright retreated to his bench.
Almost every second-guessed move the Magic has made over the last two years has been aimed at bringing out the best in Howard. Yet Orlando might not have made it to these Finals if not for a statement made by Howard himself. After a crushing Game 5 loss in the conference semifinals in Boston that dumped the Magic in a 3--2 hole, Howard publicly demanded a greater role in crunch time. "You've got a dominant player. Let him be dominant," said Howard after being limited to 10 shots in 37 minutes. "I have to get the ball."
Given the existing misgivings about the Magic, Howard's criticism of his coach in the heat of the playoffs seemed to be an omen of impending doom. Yet the truth, like so much else about this team, was the opposite of what it seemed. In fact, the outburst was a sign of hope. It was the long-awaited signal that Howard was ready to lead.
That night Smith and Van Gundy met until 5 a.m. to discuss how to deal with Howard's outburst, and four hours later they held a team meeting to clear the air. Since then the responsibility has been Howard's to make good on his demand. He was the one calling for the ball in the clutch—what was he going to do with it? Since then Howard has averaged a breakout 23.8 points (3.8 more than he had been scoring previously in the playoffs) while driving the Magic to wins in six of eight games against the top two teams in the East. In the last four games he hit 71.9% of his free throws (an upgrade from his 59.4% rate during the season), which has enabled his teammates to play through him down the stretch.
Will his play carry over into the Finals? Similar to the dynamic of its series against LeBron, the Magic won both of its regular-season games against the Lakers while absorbing big performances from Bryant. Nelson played a major role in those victories, but maybe Howard is prepared to finish what his injured teammate started, to deliver on his own gargantuan promise, and with the trophy in hand dispel the naysaying about his team, once and for all.