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The franchise player is years away from realizing his potential, the secondary star is lavishly overpaid, the locker room has been bereft of leadership since the point guard was injured, the Turkish small forward is too passive and the French sixth man thinks he's a better shooter than he really is. That only makes him fit right in on this team, which puts up way too many three-pointers to be taken seriously, and whose coach screams so much that he's guaranteed to lose his players—a bunch of softies who can't play defense and lack the experience to beat the likes of the Celtics and the Cavaliers and, especially, the Lakers. ¶ So has read the book on the Magic at various times this season. But with one unlikely playoff win after another, Orlando has been erasing each and every one of those presumptions. And now, with the NBA Finals commencing this Thursday, who's to say the Magic won't continue its revision of conventional wisdom by upending the favored Lakers?
Already Orlando has succeeded in ruining the globally anticipated Finals between Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. By ousting James's top-seeded Cavaliers last Saturday with a 103--90 win at home in Game 6 of the Eastern finals—which would have ended in a sweep if not for a memorable (but ultimately inconsequential) three at the buzzer from LeBron in Game 2—the No. 3 Magic has positioned itself to become the lowest conference seed to win a championship since 1995. That was when the Rockets set the modern standard for NBA upsets as a No. 6 seed when they swept, yes, the Magic, at that time led by 23-year-old center Shaquille O'Neal.
Now Orlando is in its second Finals, led by another 23-year-old franchise center. Dwight Howard rebutted any doubts about his readiness in Game 6, exploding for two-handed dunks and banking in soft leaners and jump hooks for a career postseason high of 40 points. His coming-of-age performance came just as LeBron was threatening to go Bruce Lee and take out the Magic all by himself—the league MVP averaged an astonishing 38.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 8.0 assists, and he had extended the series by scoring or assisting on 32 consecutive points in a virtuoso fourth-quarter performance to win Game 5 in Cleveland.
No less surprising than Orlando's win was the team's reaction. After the King had been silenced and the conference trophy awarded, the Orlando locker room was surprisingly quiet. The young Magic players were behaving like veterans who had been this far before, even though they had entered this postseason with but one series win as a group.
So the question becomes: How did so many fail to notice the championship potential that now seems so obvious?
It isn't too late to address the misunderstandings and rewrite the book on Orlando:
• In fact, the secondary star is worth the money. Although Rashard Lewis made the All-Star team while averaging 17.7 points this season, the mammoth contract he signed as a free agent in July 2007—$118.5 million over six years—was condemned by rival executives as much too rich for a power forward who isn't an A-list scorer, rebounder (5.7 per game this season) or shot blocker (0.65). But Magic general manager Otis Smith wanted a versatile frontcourt talent who was selfless enough to defer to Howard and therefore accelerate the young center's development, and this postseason has borne out the investment. Lewis is the rare knockdown shooter who doesn't need to constantly pull the trigger. "I didn't come to this team to try to win a scoring title," he says.
Lewis's value isn't measured as much by his numbers—though he did average 19.4 points throughout the Eastern playoffs—as by the cold-blooded timing of his baskets. He erased the Cavs' lead with a three to win Game 1 with 14.7 seconds left. With Orlando trailing by a point with 6.4 seconds remaining in regulation of Game 4, he skirted past a Howard screen and pirouetted in the left corner for a highly difficult catch-and-shoot three that he executed as casually as a pregame warmup shot. Orlando went on to win in overtime. There should be no further second-guessing of Lewis's value if he buries one or two more of those pivotal shots in the Finals.
• The Turkish small forward isn't always passive, and the French sixth man can shoot. As a teenager he was essentially the Turkish LeBron in his native Istanbul. Yet during Hedo Turkoglu's initial seven seasons with the Kings, Spurs and Magic, he was too willing to fit in, to the point where he tended to disappear. "The unfortunate thing with him—and I'm not speaking behind his back, he's heard it all—is that when he doesn't bring the energy, a lot of times he's mediocre," says Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy, who so successfully force-fed Turkoglu that he won the NBA's Most Improved Player award in 2008.
Early this season Turkoglu was reverting to his old passive ways, but that changed in February when point guard Jameer Nelson suffered a shoulder injury. During key fourth-quarter stretches the 6'10" Turkoglu shifted into the role of point guard, and against the Cavs he exploited a Magic Johnson--like view of the court against 6'3" guard Delonte West. "If he's making good plays and decisions, that's usually when we're at our best," Van Gundy says.