ORLANDO, Fl (ESPN) - One singular moment that Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard might cherish most from this night happened quite apart from his numerous dunks, his timely passes and the dozen free throws he knocked down with a confidence he rarely has shown before.
It happened so quickly, was done with such subtlety, that it's possible only a handful of people witnessed it. With 41 seconds left, Howard had the ball in the low post and was turning toward the basket, and Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James grabbed him with both arms and wrapped him up with an intentional foul. Both players dropped their arms, and a quick low-five was discreetly exchanged -- a gesture that seemed congratulatory on James' part, conciliatory on Howard's.
"It was all love, no bad blood there," Howard said of his Team USA pal. Howard one-upped the superstar by playing the game of his career, a 40-point, 14-rebound offensive masterpiece that put the Magic into the NBA Finals as they defeated the Cavs 103-90 on Saturday night.
They don't call him Superman for nothing. Especially on a night when he shot 14-for-21 from the field and 12-for-16 from the line, handed out four assists when the Cavs were forced into triple-teaming him and sacrificed some of his defensive intensity for the good of the team, realizing that aggression in the paint would lead him into foul trouble.
Yes, he finished with five personals. But Howard was never in foul trouble when the game was still relatively tight. That allowed him to channel his energy toward being a dominant scorer who became deserving of his touches because he kept converting them. In Game 6, Howard had 52 touches, 40 of them in the paint, compared to 18 total touches in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against Boston. In the entire Eastern Conference finals against Cleveland, he made only one shot from outside the paint while attempting only four.
Earlier this month, Howard had ripped Magic coach Stan Van Gundy for failing to provide him with more touches and had seemed to lack maturity both on and off the court. In this series, the 23-year-old center has grown up before our eyes. One sign of that was his demeanor in the locker room after Saturday's game. As Howard scrolled through the text messages on his cell phone ("Biggest one so far is from Spike Lee," he said), he offered this reply to one of his buddies who stopped by to congratulate him: "Ain't finished yet."
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