Over the last several years, LeBron James has become the NBA’s signature star, the consensus “greatest player in the world.” In that same timeframe, Dwight Howard has become synonymous with the word “diva”. But it wasn’t always so—in the 2009 NBA Eastern Conference Finals, “Superman”, as Howard modestly dubbed himself, trumped “King James” when Dwight’s Orlando Magic ousted LeBron’s Cleveland Cavaliers.
Howard arrived in 2005 to an Orlando franchise that was on hard times. In 2007, the Magic made the playoffs and in 2008 they won a postseason series. They were ready for the next step in 2009. Howard averaged 21 points/14 rebounds per game and was first-team All-NBA.
He had Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis at the forward spots, combining for 35 points/11 rebounds a night. There was a talented young point guard in Jameer Nelson and a solid veteran backcourt presence in Rafe Alston, each double-digit scorers.
Orlando went 59-23 and won the Southeast Division. They eliminated the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round then ousted the defending champion Boston Celtics in the conference semi-finals. Even allowing that Boston’s Kevin Garnett was out with an injury, the Magic were coming on strong in the playoffs.
Cleveland had drafted LeBron prior to the 2003-04 season and got back into the playoffs in 2006. LeBron’s big coming-out party was in 2007 when he led an undermanned team to the NBA Finals before losing to the San Antonio Spurs.
The previous year, the Cavs had lost a Game 7 to the Boston team that would win the NBA title, in spite of LeBron dropping 48 in Game 7. This Cavs team, like the Magic, was ready to take another step in 2009.
LeBron had support from Mo Williams, the guard who knocked down 18 a game and Delonte West who chipped in 12. Rebounding support came from Anderson Varaejo and Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who combined for 15 boards apiece. Cleveland also had Ben Wallace, the center who had been instrumental to the 2004 Detroit Pistons championship run. Wallace was 34-years-old and not the same player, but he still added seven rebounds a night.
Cleveland dominated the regular season, going 66-16 with James winning the first of what is currently four MVP awards. The Cavs then dominated the first two rounds of the playoffs, going 8-0 I sweeping out Detroit and the Atlanta Hawks.
There seemed to be little that could stand in the way of LeBron going head-to-head with Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals, a scenario that a league that often seems to get its way when it comes to matchups would love.
But even though Cleveland had more experience at this level of the postseason than did Orlando, it was the Cavs who seemed to have trouble executing at the big moments. They came out blazing in Game 1 and took a 14-point lead after the first quarter. LeBron was electric, shooting 20-for-30 and scoring 49 points. But Howard answered with 30 points/13 boards, Turkoglu dished 14 assists and Orlando turned the tide in the third quarter. The Magic would eventually prevail 107-106.
Game 2 went almost according to the same script. Cleveland was up 14 after a quarter. James was big-time, scoring 35. Orlando came back. This time though, Howard was limited to eight shots and Ilgauskas grabbed 15 rebounds, keying a Cleveland advantage on the glass. It was enough for the Cavs to survive 96-95.
Even with the win, Cleveland still had to reclaim homecourt advantage and the tendency of fast starts and slow fades was alarming.
Orlando held Cleveland to 37 percent shooting in Game 3—while James got his points, 41 in all, it came on 11-for-28 from the floor—and the Magic churned out a 99-89 win.
The fourth game was the one that, for all practical purposes, probably decided this series. LeBron came up big, with 44 points/12 rebounds. Howard was clutch, with 27/14. It was the role players and the bench that made the difference for Orlando. Alston scored 26 and Mickael Pietrus came off the bench to score 17. To put that in perspective, the entire Cleveland bench only scored 14. The game went to overtime and Orlando won 116-114.
There was still hope for Cleveland. Even down 3-1 in games, they only needed one road win and to defend their home floor. They did the latter in Game 5, but again couldn’t manage big leads. They jumped out to an early 17-point lead and gave it almost all back by halftime before finally re-asserting control in the fourth quarter and winning 112-102.
Howard played his best game of the series for his home fans in Game 6. Superman poured in 40 points and hauled down 14 rebounds. LeBron did not play well, shooting just 8-for-20. Orlando’s dominance of the inside, reflected by both Howard’s numbers and a 47-34 rebounding advantage were too much to overcome. Orlando won 103-90 and claimed the Eastern Conference title.
It looked like the 2009 NBA Eastern Conference Finals might be the beginning a special rivalry. Things didn’t turn out that way. After Orlando lost the NBA Finals to Los Angeles, the Magic reached the conference finals in 2010 before losing to the Celtics and then fell off the edge of the earth. Howard left town for the Lakers, which was a disaster, and then signed with the Houston Rockets.
LeBron’s Cavs also lost to the Celtics in 2010, a bitter second-round loss. The following summer he made the famous (or infamous) “Decision” to go to the Miami Heat, where he won two titles and made the NBA Finals four times. Now he’s coming back to Cleveland.
Ultimately though, LeBron and Dwight’s public personas have moved in diametrically opposite directions in the ensuing five years, King James for the better, Superman for the worse. It seems hard to believe that it wasn’t that long ago that Dwight won the battle when they went head-to-head.