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On basketball

Leading man Howard steps onto new stage

By Marc J. Spears
Globe Staff / June 3, 2009
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Celtics assistant coach Clifford Ray felt like a proud papa while on the phone with his former student Sunday night. It was just five years ago that the ex-NBA center started teaching the then-18-year-old how to play the post. And in just a short time, Dwight Howard is now all grown up at 23 as he has led the Orlando Magic to the NBA Finals.

While Ray is admittedly biased toward his former employer, he truly believes that the Magic will upset the Lakers in the NBA Finals, which begin tomorrow. And if Orlando is to win its first NBA championship, Ray's old pupil will have to spearhead the effort.

"He's totally excited," said Ray. "I also talked to his mom and his dad. He's worked hard. I've told him to stay humble. Humility is everything. He deserves this."

If Howard is to get an NBA title at such a young age, the Magic will have to get past the toughest possible roadblock, the Lakers.

They advanced to the championship round by stunning the Cleveland Cavaliers in six games in the Eastern Conference finals. Even with the NBA's best all-around player in LeBron James on Cleveland's roster, the Magic were noticeably better.

The chiseled, powerful, and athletic Howard was too strong and quick for aging Cleveland centers Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Ben Wallace. The Cavs had no one to guard versatile 6-foot-11-inch forward Rashard Lewis and no one Lewis had to guard to keep him honest defensively. Cleveland had no one tall enough to guard 6-10 forward Hedo Turkoglu. Delonte West? Come on, Cleveland. Magic guards Rafer Alston, Mickael Pietrus, and rookie Courtney Lee couldn't have played better, either.

There was no team that mighty Cleveland matched up worse with in the East than Orlando. But the Magic powers that conquered the Cavs won't be as powerful against the athletic, tall, and experienced Lakers.

The Lakers have three 7-footers to toss Howard's way in Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, and D.J. Mbenga. None of them will be able to guard Howard as well as Boston's brawny Kendrick Perkins did in the second round, but having three young 7-footers with 18 fouls to give certainly will help. Gasol also has the offensive gifts to make Howard work on the defensive end, as does Bynum at times.

Kobe Bryant is the most explosive scorer in the league and will keep Lee and Pietrus on their toes from tip-off to final buzzer. The slender Lewis will be challenged on both ends on the floor by a similar player in Laker reserve Lamar Odom, as well as Gasol. Lengthy Lakers small forward Trevor Ariza has the talent and size to make it tough on Turkoglu to score.

While Cleveland used a zone defense to try to stop Orlando's deadly perimeter game, the Lakers are talented and athletic enough to stay in man and close out hard on every 3-point attempt. An X factor could be the likely return of Orlando All-Star guard Jameer Nelson, who averaged 27.5 points in two games against the Lakers in the regular season. Nelson had right shoulder surgery Feb. 19 that was supposed to be season-ending.

Led by the unstoppable Bryant, the Lakers have more offensive weapons than Cleveland. Also keep in mind that Los Angeles has superior experience, winning three NBA championships this decade and losing in the Finals twice, including last year. The Magic are making their first Finals appearance since 1995 - when Howard was 9 years old.

"A tough team, another good team," said Lewis. "Just like we faced LeBron James, now we got to face Kobe Bryant. He has got a good supporting cast around him, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom. They are a great defensive team. They move the ball around on offense.

"We got our work cut out for us. Nothing is going to be easy. We got to go out there and defend. I think defense will help us win ballgames."

As talented offensively as Turkoglu, Lewis, and Nelson are, offensive production from Howard would spark the team.

Howard must set good picks before darting to the basket for dunks, lay-ins, and hooks. If the Lakers decide to focus on Howard on pick-and-roll plays, a Magic sharpshooter could be left open for jumpers. Since the Lakers will likely go man-to-man, they will also have to decide whether to front or play Howard in the post defensively, with dangers in both choices.

Gasol isn't strong enough or quick enough to guard Howard, Bynum is still gimpy with poor lateral movement from knee surgery, and Mbenga is, well, Mbenga. Howard is also the NBA's best offensive rebounder, and if he gets double-teamed, he can pass the ball back out. The 6-11, 240-pounder also must keep the ball up high in the paint against the steal-happy Lakers.

After demanding more touches in the Boston series, Howard went on to average 25.8 points, 13 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks against Cleveland. He had the best game of his NBA career with 40 points and 14 rebounds in the clinching Game 6 of the East finals. In two regular-season games against the Lakers, Howard averaged 21.5 points and 16 rebounds.

"If we go hard for 48 minutes at the end of the Finals, we should have a ring," said Howard. "We should have a trophy."

When you think of NBA stars, names like Bryant, James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, and Chris Paul instantly come to mind. Not Howard, though, who has been lost in the shadow of his USA Basketball teammates and isn't being force-fed to American fans by the NBA, Nike, ESPN, and TNT like James and Bryant are. Howard actually was expected to be a year or two away from seriously competing for a title.

With a big smile and a silly Shaquille O'Neal-like sense of humor, the man nicknamed "Superman" has all the attributes to be a star off the court. But if the Magic are to win a championship on the court against the Lakers, Howard must be faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings. Ray expects Howard to be that type of superhero.

"I think Orlando is a better team." Ray said. "I worked with that team, know most of those guys, worked with Rashard. They're a great team with great team chemistry.

"I said all along that the team who won [the Boston-Orlando series] would win the championship. I said that all along. I thought it was going to be us. It wasn't meant to be this year. But I think Orlando will win."

Marc J. Spears can be reached at mspears@globe.com

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