Magic forward Hedo Turkoglu celebrates a three-point shot by teammate Rashard Lewis in the fourth quarter of Game 4 of in Orlando, Fla., Tuesday.AP photo
ORLANDO, Fla. — Dressed in black, the imposing 7-footer sat near the floor for Game 4 like a casual NBA fan. He was hardly one.
Around here, Shaquille O’Neal means much more.
He represents the link to Orlando’s glorious past, however brief it may be. Shaq, a basket-breaking behemoth with the power of several men, led the Magic to their only NBA finals appearance in 1995, a short visit that ended with an embarrassing sweep by Houston.
The Magic and their fans have longed for a second shot.
They can almost touch it.
Orlando moved within one win of ending its 14-year finals drought on Tuesday night as Dwight Howard, the Magic’s present-day Diesel, scored 27 points — 10 in overtime — in a 116-114 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers to take a 3-1 lead in the Eastern Conference finals and shove LeBron James and his not-so-supportive cast to the edge of an early summer break.
A razor-thin series — two one-point games, and a two-pointer in OT — where the last team with the ball usually emerges victorious, could end tonight. Maybe.
“We’re up 3-1, but we can’t relax,” said Rashard Lewis, whose catch-and-shoot 3-pointer with 4.1 seconds left in regulation was easily Game 4’s most dramatic shot. “Anything can happen. We got to go to Cleveland looking to try and close these guys out.”
The Magic got more good news Wednesday when the NBA rescinded Howard’s Game 4 technical foul, his sixth of the playoffs. Under league rules, Howard would’ve been automatically suspended for one game had he received a seventh technical during the postseason.
Orlando heads into Game 5 with no fear of the road. They finished off the defending champion Boston Celtics on their famed parquet floor in a Game 7 in the previous round and have a chance to end Cleveland’s dream season on the court of King James.
The MVP, who is averaging 42.3 points, 7.3 rebound and 7.3 assists in the series, won’t go quietly.
“I’m up for the challenge,” James said. “And I think my play, my leadership has spoke for that. So I will be ready, and I think our guys will be ready also.”
Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy, who doesn’t sleep well even when things are going great, knows if anyone can turn this series around it’s the magnificent James.
“This thing is a long, long, long way from over, just like the games in this series have been,” he said. “When you’ve got a guy as great as him on the other side, you’re a long way from done.”
After Wednesday’s practice in Ohio, Cavs coach Mike Brown agreed.
“This is about as even of a series as you can ask for. They’ve just made one or two plays down the stretch more than us. But I still feel the confidence, I still feel the togetherness and I still feel like we have a chance to win this,” Brown said.
The odds are stacked against the Cavaliers.
In the NBA’s 62-year postseason history, 190 teams have taken a 3-1 lead in a series and 182 of them have won. More daunting for the Cavaliers is that the Magic have won 10 of the past 14 meetings between the teams, and were one of three teams to win at Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena this season.
James and Co. are running out of time and answers.
Cleveland’s matchup problems are glaring: Height, depth, speed. You name it, Orlando has it over Cleveland.
When the Cavs have concentrated on stopping Howard down low, the Magic make 3-pointers (they hit 17 of 38 in Game 4), and when Cleveland focuses its defense on guarding the perimeter, Howard destroys them near the basket.
Care for some arsenic? Or hemlock?
“They’re playing their best basketball of the season right now,” said Cavs center Zydrunas Ilgauskas. “They’re playing better than they played against Philly and Boston. We’ve tried everything. We’ve tried mixing up our defensive coverages, we’ve tried defending pick and rolls, tried everything in the post. It’s worked at times, but 17 3s are hard to overcome.”