ORLANDO, Fla. – From an unforgettable shot to a cheap one.
Three games in, the Eastern Conference finals have grown a little nasty.
Dwight Howard scored 24 points – 14 on free throws – and Rafer Alston added 18 as the Orlando Magic, sick of seeing replays of LeBron James` dramatic buzzer-beater to win Game 2, downed the Cleveland Cavaliers 99-89 on Sunday night to take a 2-1 lead in the series.
A physical game from start to finish, there were 86 free throws attempted, 58 personal fouls called, two technicals, and a flagrant. The officials spent half the night stepping between players on both sides as tempers flared inside an overheated Amway Arena.
In the first half, Mo Williams had his left eye split open by Orlando`s Anthony Johnson, who nailed Cleveland`s point guard with an elbow.
Williams, who needed four stitches to close two cuts, and James felt the blow was a cheap shot.
“I think it was,” James said. “You see Mo`s face, it`s not a pretty sight. That`s not called for in this game.”
James scored 41 on just 11-of-28 shooting and missed five free throws in the fourth quarter. And once again, Cleveland`s superstar didn`t get enough help from his teammates. Williams, Delonte West and Zydrunas Ilgauskas shot a combined 13-of-37.
Game 4 is Tuesday night.
The first two games of the series in Cleveland were each decided by one point. This one was resolved by elbows, shoves and hard fouls.
Howard, Ilgauskas and Cleveland`s Anderson Varejao all fouled out. Afterward, Williams said the Cavaliers were giving the underdog Magic too much respect.
“We just need to man up,” James said. “Orlando is a very, very good team.”
Unlike Games 1 and 2, the Magic got out fast, stayed close despite Howard`s early foul trouble and put the Cavs away at the line.
Howard, a notoriously poor foul shooter, went 14-of-19 from the line and the Magic made 39 of 51 attempts. In the fourth quarter alone, Orlando made 19 of 23 to hold off the top-seeded Cavaliers, who began the playoffs with eight straight wins and have now dropped two of their last three.
Each time he stepped to the line, Howard sang a song in his head he heard at halftime.
“We just kept fighting. That`s what we got to do, we fight to the end,” Howard said. “We can`t worry about nothing, we can`t worry about the calls, can`t worry about nobody else. We just got to get out there and play.”
Cleveland better figure out a way to win in steamy Florida fast. The Cavs, who were thumped here by 29 on April 3, have lost six of their last seven in Orlando.
The Magic seem to have a spell over the Cavs.
“They create so many matchup problems for us,” Williams said. “I know it. They know it. Everybody knows it.”
Despite his lack of help, James kept Cleveland within striking distance in the fourth and scored on a three-point play while getting Howard`s fifth foul with 2:34 to play to pull the Cavs to 90-86.
Howard, wrapped up underneath, then made two free throws before James was fouled and rimmed out two at the other end. On Orlando`s next trip, Mickael Pietrus, who came off the bench to score 16, grabbed a long rebound, got fouled and was pushed in the back by West, who was handed a T.
Pietrus made his free throws to make it 94-86 and the Magic appeared to have things under control when Howard caught James from behind and blocked his 3-pointer. The refs saw it otherwise and called a three-shot foul on Superman, who couldn`t believe it.
James made all three shots, but the Cavs were short on time. Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu made free throws. Turkoglu was just 1-of-11 from the floor but made 11 free throws and added 10 rebounds and seven assists.
After sitting the final seven minutes of the first half with three fouls, Howard made it through 9:10 of the third quarter before getting No. 4 – and technical No. 5 of the postseason.
He was called for pushing Ben Wallace underneath, and upset with the whistle, he said something on his way to the bench that referee Joey Crawford didn`t like and was T`d up. Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy had warned his star to keep his composure because the league automatically suspends a player for one game after he receives his seventh technical foul in the playoffs.
“I didn`t say anything to Joey Crawford,” Howard said. “The response was to the other team. I didn`t say anything to Joey Crawford. I`m not stupid enough to get in his face and say anything, so I try to keep it to the other team.”
The Magic led 29-23 when Howard picked up his third personal foul with 7:27 remaining in the first half when he bumped James ever so slightly on a drive.
After Johnson rocked Williams with the elbow, Williams laid face down on the floor for several seconds. When he got up, Williams, who was called for a block, had blood trickling from his eyebrow and left cheek.
During the timeout, the officiating crew huddled and decided to call a flagrant-1 on Johnson. Williams, who had hurried from the floor for medical treatment, came back out to shoot the free throws with his eye already severely swollen. If he had not returned to shoot, Williams would not have been able to play anymore.
Gritting his teeth, Williams, looking like a boxer needing a corner cut man, made both shots and immediately headed to the locker room for stitches.
He was back on the floor with about two minutes left.
Before the game, James said he expected a physical game.
“When you play a team over and over you start to dislike them more,” he said. “It just happens. It`s got to be a little chippy.”
Was it ever.
Celebrity row included Tiger Woods, NBA stars Dwyane Wade and Carlos Boozer, rapper Lil` Wayne and Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis.
â™¦ Cavaliers coach Mike Brown joked that he can`t turn on any TV channel without seeing James and the “Shot That Saved Cleveland” in Game 2.
“They even showed highlights of it on HGTV,” he said. “That`s what I watch. It`s got to be the best shot from him that I`ve seen.”
WHO: Cleveland at Orlando
WHAT: Game 4, Eastern Conference finals; Magic leads series, 2-1
WHEN: Tuesday, 8:30 p.m.
WHERE: Amway Arena, Orlando, Fla.
TV/RADIO: TNT; WEOL 930-AM, WTAM 1100-AM