The Orlando Magic have reached the NBA finals with a convincing 103-90 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers.
|Dwight Howard dunks against the Cavs [EPA]
Dwight Howard dominated inside for 40 points and Rashard Lewis contributed 18 in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Orlando hit 12 3-pointers to set up a showdown with Western Conference winners the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Magic will be making their first finals appearance since 1995, one year before Shaquille O'Neal bolted as a free agent for Los Angeles, leaving the Florida franchise in ruins.
It was a long, slow climb back, but Orlando have been rebuilt and will meet the Lakers on Thursday night at the Staples Centre in LA in Game 1.
"I just think this team all year long has shown an incredible amount of heart," Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said.
"This team just keeps fighting back. They deserve it."
Eye of the Tiger
With the city's most famous athlete, Tiger Woods, sitting courtside, Orlando made believers of all those who wondered if they were better than the Cavaliers, a team that won 66 games in the regular season, or the defending champion Boston Celtics.
"I don't think people thought we could be at this level," Van Gundy said.
LeBron James scored 25 in his worst game of the series, but the 24-year-old was magnificent for most of it, adding to a legacy still in its infancy.
But the league MVP had to do most of it alone, as Mo Williams lost his shooting touch and Cleveland's bench was badly outplayed by Orlando's reserves.
After the game, James put on headphones and stormed out of Amway Arena.
He skipped the news conference and briskly walked down the corridor with two security guards as escorts.
He sank into a chair to be scanned for the team's charter plane ride, grabbed his bags and was gone - a special season ending in stunning disappointment.
Delonte West added 22 and Williams 17 for Cleveland, who went 0-5 in Orlando.
During the closing minutes, James was mocked by Orlando's crowd singing "M-V-P" as Howard shot free throws.
When the final horn sounded, James could only pull out his jersey and walk slowly off the floor just as he did last year after losing Game 7 in Boston.
As great as James was, this wasn't his season, and once again Cleveland fans
will feel nothing but heartache as they wait for a team to end the city's 45-year championship drought.
|LeBron feels the pressure [EPA]
Howard's one flaw has been his free-throw shooting, but he made 12 of 16 in Game 6.
"For us as a team, we understand how everybody has talked about us for the last couple of years," Howard said. "We can beat anybody."
The Magic's season hasn't been without its share of turmoil.
Point guard Jameer Nelson sustained a season-ending shoulder injury in early February, a setback that at the time seemed as if it would prevent Orlando from doing anything special this year.
But general manager Otis Smith acquired guard Rafer Alston in a trade with Houston.
Alston, a former playground legend, fit in perfectly.
In the opening round against Philadelphia, the Magic lost the opener before rebounding and winning a close-out Game 6 on the road.
Then, following Game 5 of the Boston series, Howard called out Van Gundy for not getting him the ball enough and challenged his substitution patterns.
The Magic shook off that spat, too, winning two straight, including Game 7 in Boston.
Lewis and Alston drained 3 pointers late in the second quarter as the shoot-first-ask-questions-later Magic built an 18-point half-time lead.
On Cleveland's last possession before halftime, James, who didn't score in the period, drove the lane and missed a runner while being knocked to the floor.