ORLANDO, Fla. – The Orlando Magic never gave in. They didn't buckle when their starting point guard went down with a season-ending injury. They regrouped when their frustrated superstar called out their coach. They stood up to the Boston Celtics. They sent LeBron James home.
They fought — all the way to the NBA finals.
Kobe vs. LeBron?
Not this year.
Dwight Howard dominated inside for 40 points, Rashard Lewis added 18 and the overlooked Magic wrecked the Kobe-LeBron dream finals with a 103-90 victory over James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 6 to win the Eastern Conference championship Saturday night.
Fourteen frustrating years since their last appearance, the Magic are back from ruin.
"I don't think people thought we could be at this level," coach Stan Van Gundy said.
The Magic will be making their first finals appearance since 1995, one year before Shaquille O'Neal bolted as a free agent for Los Angeles and wrecked the franchise. Six years ago they won just 21 games, a low point that helped them draft Howard with No. 1 pick.
It's been a long, slow climb back, but Orlando has been rebuilt and will meet the Lakers on Thursday night at the Staples Center in Game 1.
Disney World vs. Disneyland.
Oh, and memo to Nike executives: It's time to break out the Howard puppet. LeBron's can go in summer storage.
For now, the only matchup between James and Lakers superstar Bryant will have to be limited to those cute TV commercials.
With the city's most famous athlete, Tiger Woods, sitting courtside, Orlando dropped 12 3-pointers and made believers of all those who wondered if they were better than the Cavaliers, a team that won 66 games in the regular season, or the defending champion Celtics.
The Magic made both disappear.
"For us as a team, we understand how everybody has talked about us for the last couple of years," Howard said. "We can beat anybody."
James scored 25 in his worst game of the series, but the 24-year-old MVP was magnificent for most of it, adding to a legacy still in its infancy. But Mo Williams lost his shooting touch and Cleveland's bench was badly outplayed by Orlando's reserves.
Afterward, James put on headphones and stormed out of Amway Arena.
He skipped the news conference and briskly walked down the corridor with two security guards as escorts. He plopped into a chair to be scanned for the team's charter plane ride, grabbed his bags and was gone — a special season ending in stunning disappointment.
Delonte West added 22 and Williams, who guaranteed the Cavs would come back and win the series, 17 for Cleveland, which went 0-5 in Orlando.
"We had one goal and we came up short," Cavs coach Mike Brown said.
During the closing minutes, James was mocked by Orlando's crowd singing "M-V-P" as Howard shot free throws.
After Superman muscled underneath for a thunderous dunk with 2:21 left, the crowd moved into finals mode chanting, "Beat L.A.!"
Howard's one flaw has been his free-throw shooting, but he made 12 of 16 in Game 6.
Inside. Outside. The Magic had it all.
Cleveland may have had the best player. Orlando had the better team.
"Everybody's hurting," Cavs guard Daniel Gibson said. "It's hard watching the dream go away with every 3-point shot they made."
The Magic's season hasn't been without its share of turmoil. Jameer Nelson sustained a season-ending shoulder injury in early February, a setback that at the time seemed as if it would prevent Orlando from doing anything this year.
But general manager Otis Smith acquired guard Rafer Alston from Houston. Alston, a former playground legend, fit in perfectly. In the opening round against Philadelphia, the Magic lost the opener before rebounding and winning a close-out Game 6 on the road.
Then, following Game 5 of the Boston series, Howard called out Van Gundy for not getting him the ball enough and challenged his substitution patterns. The Magic shook off that spat, too, winning two straight, including Game 7 on Boston's parquet.
In the conference finals, they beat Cleveland with a devastating mix of inside power and outside firepower.
"This team has fought really, really hard," Van Gundy said. "Our reward is you get to go from preparing for LeBron to preparing for Kobe. I'm not doing that tonight."
This was supposed to be the Cavs' season. But there will be no title, and once again Cleveland fans will feel nothing but heartache as they wait for one of their city's teams to end a 45-year championship drought.
In the first half, the Cavaliers couldn't stop Howard and the shoot-first-ask-questions-later Magic took turns launching 3s while building an 18-point halftime lead.
"When they get it going, they are really tough," Ben Wallace said.
On Cleveland's last possession before the half, James missed a short runner while being knocked to the floor. He sat there in disbelief, looking for a call, looking for help, looking lost.
Cleveland's coaching staff barked at the officials and Brown was assessed a technical.
When the Cavs came back out after halftime, Howard was practicing free throws. As he walked toward Cleveland's bench, injured forward Lorenzen Wright, dressed in a suit, jumped up and grabbed the net and tried to knock out one of Howard's shots.
It dropped in anyway, another symbolic moment.
A little more Magic.