The reason the Magic eked out a four-point win against the Lakers in Game 3 of the NBA Finals on Tuesday night, to cut the Lakers' lead in the best-of-seven series to 2-1, was because its Superman, Howard, saved the day.
Much will be said in the aftermath of the Magic's 108-104 victory about their torrid record championship series' shooting in the first half that was recorded at 75 percent. But it staked them to just a five-point lead at the break.
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Much will be said about the Lakers' incomparable Kobe Bryant looking down the stretch more like Anita Bryant. (Historical, or hysterical, reference: She's the singer that most of you probably remember only from the movie Airplane!, when Leslie Nielsen's character, Dr. Rumack, sees a number of passengers become nauseated and suffer uncontrollable flatulence and says, "I haven't seen anything this bad since the Anita Bryant concert.")
But the difference in Game 3 came down to Howard finally on this stage living up to his moniker and the Defensive Player of the Year Award he won this season.
With about 30 seconds left and he and his Magic teammates nursing a two-point lead, Howard poked the basketball from Kobe's hands and forced the Lakers into unlucky turnover No. 13. Howard's sharpshooting sixth man, Mickael Pietrus, scored a couple of free throws shortly afterward to seal the game.
"Howard just made a great play with his hands," Kobe said. "Simple as that."
The night may have proved a little more complex, however, at least where Howard is concerned. After all, what Howard did Tuesday was show some maturity to his game that many of us saw him lacking in the first two games of this title set. He played within himself in the low post and didn't force shots that weren't there or that he isn't capable of making. He used his power when he could.
He showed more patience on the offensive end where he'd been ineffective in the first game and turnover-prone in the second. In Game 3, he missed but one of six shots en route to 21 points and recorded his first trademark ally-oop slam dunk, something Lakers coach Phil Jackson said earlier he was happy his team hadn't allowed.
"I give a lot of credit to Dwight," said Rashard Lewis, the towering three-point specialist who put the Magic up three with a long two-pointer with just over a minute left. "When you run a pick-and-roll, two guys have to pick him [Howard], they have to play close to him, and it's leaving me wide open to shoot some threes. When we pass low to him, he gets crowded, he gets double teamed and he's making good passes out of the double team."
And how about this: Howard was awarded 16 free-throws and made 11, a better percentage on the night than Kobe, who missed half of his 10 attempts from the line. Howard played the entire night as collected as a 10-year veteran. He showed none of the disappointment with referees' calls and missed shots that he had in Los Angeles, where this series was played for the first two games.
Amway Arena in Orlando turned out to be Dwight Howard's phone booth, like the one in which Clark Kent ducked.
"I felt good," Howard said after Tuesday night.
In all that he did, Howard also proved in Orlando, at least, to be nothing like the greatest center who played for this town. He proved to be no Shaquille O'Neal.
After all, Shaq never did for the Magic what Howard did Tuesday night. He never led his team to a Finals' win. His team with Penny Hardaway got swept in the '95 Finals against Houston. They never mustered the fortitude to rebound.
"The thing about our team is when we lost Game 2, I think we was upset in the locker room for a moment," Howard said. "We talked. We didn't allow us being down 0-2 to discourage us from winning."
The win didn't come easily for the Magic, as the margin of victory and last second heroics suggested. It was as if they were Villanova playing that near-perfect game against a Patrick Ewing-led Georgetown to win the NCAA Tournament. (Ewing witnessed this game, too, but from the winning side as Howard's mentor on the Magic bench.) It took a spectacular performance from the recently maligned Magic point guard Rafer Alston as well. He dropped 20, as much as Lakers point guard Derek Fisher and his backup Jordan Farmar combined. Alston even had more assists than they did.
"I told my teammates," Howard said, "you've got to continue to believe. We've had two tough losses, but things will turn around for us if we continue to believe, go out there every night, give 100 percent for 48 minutes, and the outcome should be in our favor."
After Tuesday, everybody in Orlando believes a super hero exists. The only question is whether he will appear three more times and, even if he does, if his teammates can put him in a position where singular heroics will be enough.