ORLANDO, Fla. – Somewhere at 30,000 feet, the Orlando Magic escaped LeBron James(notes). They had replayed the shot in their heads on the flight home, over and over, torturing themselves until all they could do was laugh. Hadn't they already done the heartbreak story? Andre Iguodala(notes). Thaddeus Young(notes). Big Baby Davis.
Take a number, LeBron. Get in line. Hell of a shot, nice highlight, but c'mon. This wasn't the first dagger to pierce these Magic. Just one more superficial wound.
By now, everyone should know the Magic heal pretty quickly. If not, Sunday night offered the greatest proof yet. Shrugging off the sting of their last-second loss in Cleveland, the Magic pushed around the Cavaliers in a 99-89 victory at Amway Arena that gives them a 2-1 lead and control of the Eastern Conference finals.
After spending the previous 48 hours debating whether the Magic were ready to curl up at King James' feet, we might want to start asking this: If anyone's resolve is going to be questioned in this series, shouldn't it be that of the Cavaliers?
The Cavs can write off their Game 1 loss to the rust they collected during their long layoff. They can say they led the Magic by as many as 23 points in Game 2 before calling on LeBron's heroics.
They can also tell themselves that were it not for one second, they'd be on the brink of being swept. The Magic have now beaten the Cavs four times in six games this season, seven times in nine games dating back to last season.
That's not an accident. It's a trend. And if the first three games of this series are any indication, these Cavs are beginning to look like the Cavs of two years ago.
Once again, LeBron is searching for LeHelp.
"There's only one of me," James said in the locker room shortly before Game 3. "… If I could clone myself, we'd be all right."
James laughed when he made the comment, but, still, no one believes in the greatness of LeBron more than LeBron. If his teammates didn't take it as an insult, they should. James scored 41 points in Sunday's loss, which came two games after he scored 49 and also lost. Ninety points apparently doesn't get you what it used to, even in a recession.
Mo Williams(notes) missed 11 of 16 shots. Zydrunas Ilgauskas(notes) missed seven of his 10. James made only 11 of 28 himself, but he also lowered his head time and again and bulled his way to the foul line for 24 free throws. Had he not missed five of those foul shots in the fourth quarter, the Cavs very well might have won, but this was more on his teammates than him.
"I think all you guys that followed us all year know that we do it collectively as a group," Williams said. "It wasn't just 'Bron and Mo."
It certainly hasn't been Mo in this series; he has made just 18 of his 56 attempts in the three games. Williams left Sunday with deep welts above and below his left eye, courtesy of a second-quarter elbow from Anthony Johnson(notes). He accused Johnson of taking a cheap shot at him, but also admitted that overshadowed the real problem.
For all the complaining and lobbying the Cavs did to get Williams named as an All-Star, he could return the favor by starting to shoot like one.
"I got to go and figure out how I can make some shots and get some open looks," Williams said. "I can care less about Anthony Johnson – he plays 12 minutes a game."
Williams also admitted something else: "Coming down the court, we're already at a disadvantage because they create so many matchup problems for us."
So far, the Cavs don't have an answer for the Magic's dominating young center, Dwight Howard(notes). They tried to get physical, but he made 14 of his 19 free throws, an improvement he credited to a song he sang to himself after seeing the Magic dance team perform.
"I kept thinking about dancing the whole time," Howard said.
Howard moved his feet well enough to total 24 points and nine rebounds in just 28 minutes, which were limited by his own foul trouble. He also picked up his fifth technical for yelling at Cleveland's bench, and the Cavs can only hope Howard barks his way into two more and earns an automatic suspension.
Even then, that won't cure all of Cleveland's problems. The Cavs have struggled with the length and versatility of the Magic's two starting forwards, Hedo Turkoglu(notes) and Rashard Lewis(notes). Both Williams and James said they would like to see the Cavs double-team less on defense.
"We're giving these guys too much respect," Williams said.
If so, the Magic earned it. While the Cavs swept through the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Magic were hardened by their battles with the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics. Three times in those two rounds, Orlando lost on a shot within the final three seconds. Glen Davis'(notes) buzzer-beater dazed the Magic in the East semifinals, but they still won the series, closing it out in a Game 7 in Boston.
So when LeBron threw in his 3-pointer at the buzzer to set off a frenzied celebration among the Cavs at the end of Game 2, a couple of the Magic players laughed. Said Turkoglu: "We've been there before."
"I don't think our guys have anything to prove in terms of character and mental toughness and all of that," Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said.
In rushing to catalog LeBron's Game 2 miracle among the greatest playoff shots ever, the NBA world overlooked one important fact. To be one of the greatest, one needs to win. Michael Jordan's shot over Craig Ehlo was epic because it came in the clinching game of the series. San Antonio celebrates the 10-year anniversary of the Memorial Day Miracle because Sean Elliott's tippy-toed 3-pointer vaulted the Spurs into the NBA Finals and onto their first championship.
LeBron had already decided Friday to reserve his place in history, declaring, "That's a shot you'll see for a long time." So long, in fact, it could end up on NBA Entertainment's cutting-room floor by the end of the week.
For all of their struggles, the Cavs also know all they have to do to regain control of the series is win on Tuesday. Do so, and they fly back to Cleveland with home-court advantage in what would be a best-of-three affair.
"We're confident," James said. "I know I am as an individual. I make sure our team is."
He can only hope. So much hangs on this series for LeBron and the Cavs. Lose, and, suddenly, Donnie Walsh and the New York Knicks have more reason to smile about their own future. If LeBron can't drag this supporting cast to the Finals then maybe he listens harder to the Knicks – or any of the other dozen recruiting pitches he figures to get – next summer.
Down 2-1, facing another game at Amway Arena, LeBron and his Cavaliers will have their mettle tested. The Magic have proven they won't go away easy. The question now is whether the Cavs can do the same.