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No LeBron? No problem for NBA Finals

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

ORLANDO, Fla. – Kobe Bryant(notes) let out a long, tired sigh as he took a seat in the interview room on Wednesday.

He looked exhausted, although he wouldn't admit it. He had no such hesitation in acknowledging his wariness of the Orlando Magic as they try to square the NBA Finals at two games apiece in Game 4.

"This team can stay hot for weeks," Kobe said of the Magic. "It's not something that is just a fluke."

Three games into the Finals, two of them down to the wire, and the look on Bryant's face and the tone of his voice said it all.

Who needs LeBron?

The season was supposed to come down to a predestined clash between Kobe and King James, the two best players in the league on the two best teams during the regular season. It was going to be a renewal of the practice duels of last summer's USA Basketball team.

Two separate companies created advertising campaigns around the matchup; one even made puppets.

Then the Magic came along and ruined the plans and, now, thanks to Tuesday's energy-inducing victory, they've turned this into every bit of a series worth watching. The strong TV ratings prove nearly 14 million fans got the message that the marketers didn't.

Who needs LeBron?

"Obviously, we [were] disappointed going into the Cleveland series because everybody just overlooked [us] and said it was going to be Cleveland and L.A.," Dwight Howard(notes) said. "We were very hurt by it."

Give Orlando credit for leaving the respect whine out of these Finals. There's been little talk about how being overlooked or not being the Chosen One's team has served as motivation. And there wasn't any on Wednesday. A potential title has always been motivation enough for the Magic.

"I think players, coaches to some degree, really get into the whole respect thing, if they're given respect by people," coach Stan Van Gundy said. "Our players, as I've told them, have earned the respect.

"I mean, you can't do what we've done, you can't be at this level … if you don't have great character, resilience, not to mention talent. So, to me anyway, it's not about proving those things now, it's about trying to win a championship."

Still, if it isn't respect, then it's at least pride. No team wants to hear how everyone wanted a different Finals matchup. No one wants to watch a puppet show that overlooks them. And no team, particularly after all of that, wants to go down 0-2 and risk delivering the boring, one-sided series like the critics predicted.

No one wants the Finals to be remembered for the lack of LeBron's participation.

So here are the Magic, proving not just that they belong; they did that by LeBrooming the Cavs out of the Eastern Conference finals in six games. Here are the Magic proving they can deliver the kind of dramatic Finals these playoffs deserve.

The Magic lit it up from the floor in Game 2, hitting a record 75 percent of their shots in the first half. Their inside-outside game is so strong that Phil Jackson called it "extreme" and declared it "the most threatening" he's seen. Meanwhile, in an effort to remain multidimensional, the Magic have run some of the most creative offensive sets in recent memory.

Their coach is a disheveled, workaday, quote machine. Their star center makes statements (and Shaq jealous) by wearing preppy sweaters and not having a tattoo. They have a former street ball legend as their starting point guard.

Even their losses are interesting, one cursed by a blown alley-oop that will be rebroadcast for years.

The Magic may not win this series, but they haven't lacked for providing colorful story lines and inspired play. There's no denying they're wearing Bryant down and leaving him wondering what's next.

Who needs LeBron?

"That's just the way things are," Howard said of the focus on James.

"All we have to do is go out and win games," he continued. "We lost the first two games. We didn't play as well as we needed to. But we decided as a team that we weren't just going to give up. We deserve a chance to win the championship."

The NBA didn't get the megastar matchup it no doubt craved. Nike and VitaminWater were forced to scrap their big-money commercial campaigns. And fans that wanted to see the two best players square off will have to wait.

But a funny thing happened on the way to disaster – an intriguing series was born.

Everyone realized: Who needs LeBron?