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Rashard Lewis, now a member of the Washington Wizards, didn’t play against the Orlando Magic on Wednesday due to a sore right knee. It’s a shame because, given that the Wizards have exhausted their two road games against the Magic this season, that means Lewis won’t be returning to the Amway Center as a visitor until next season. And that means Lewis will have to wait until he can receive a proper standing ovation from the fans in Orlando — something that he deserves more than any other Magic player in recent years because, it can be argued, that he is the reason they became an elite team and championship contender.
Contract notwithstanding, Lewis defined the Orlando teams of recent years because he was the player that was asked to spread the floor for Dwight Howard and be the primary scorer from the perimeter. As a stretch four, Lewis was a matchup problem for nearly every team in the NBA because not many power forwards are accustomed to defending someone that shoots proficiently from three-point range and makes their living far away from the basket. Lewis’ transition from small forward, when he was with the Seattle SuperSonics, to power forward was a seamless one and created a unique identity for the Magic.
Although Lewis struggled in the 2010 NBA Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics and his production offensively fell off a cliff this year, Lewis’ legacy — if that’s the proper word to use — will forever be etched in the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals and in the minds of Cleveland Cavaliers fans for eternity. That’s where Lewis embodied everything that general manager Otis Smith saw in him when he brought him in as a free agent during the offseason in 2008. Lewis was a nightmare for the Cavaliers in that series and the memories he had will live on. For Orlando, Game 1 was where it all started for Lewis. That’s Lewis’ legend in a nutshell.
Let’s go back in time.
Heading into the Conference Finals, Cleveland was the prohibitive favorite to win the series because they finished with 66 wins during the regular season (best record in the league), were first in efficiency differential at +10.3, and had the MVP in LeBron James leading the way. Everything was setup for the Cavaliers to beat the Magic, advance to the NBA Finals, and face off against the Los Angeles Lakers in a dream matchup for television ratings involving LeBron and Kobe. In fact, Nike went so far ahead as by making puppet commercials with James and Bryant before the Finals in anticipation for the inevitable. One problem.
Turns out, Orlando didn’t get the memo.
Plus, even though the stage was set for Cleveland, underneath the layers destined to fail. During the regular season, the Magic beat the Cavaliers in two out of three games — one victory was by 29 points. The warning signs were there for Cleveland, yet nearly everyone ignored them after they ran roughshod in the first two rounds of the playoffs and dominated the Detroit Pistons and Atlanta Hawks. It didn’t seem possible that the Cavaliers could be beaten. Given that Orlando was stumbling to defeat the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics (a team without Kevin Garnett) themselves, not a lot of people gave them a chance. Understandably so.
Lewis changed things quickly for the Magic, though.
In Game 1 between Cleveland and Orlando, it seemed as if “the prophecy” was going to come true. The Cavaliers led by 15 points at halftime and were well on their way to a blowout victory. But Lewis was the catalyst of a furious second half charge that led to his defining moment as a player in the league.
- [6:24, 3rd quarter] With Rafer Alston running the point, the Magic execute a 1/4 pick and roll with Lewis on the left side of the court. Cleveland’s pick and roll defense is poor on this possession, and Lewis is able to make the jumper.
- [3:13, 3rd quarter] This is an out-of-bounds play for Lewis, and Orlando runs it to perfection. Howard sets a screen, Lewis curls around him and is able to make a tough contested jumpshot in the corner after receiving the basketball from Mickael Pietrus. Ironically enough, the Magic ran a similar play at the end of Game 4 when Lewis was able to make a go-ahead three-pointer in the corner.
- [11:22, 4th quarter] Orlando goes back to the side pick and rolls that have been successful throughout the game. This time, Hedo Turkoglu executes a 3/4 pick and roll that nets Lewis another jumper in the corner.
- [10:51, 4th quarter] On the next possession, the Magic run the same play because the Cavaliers are defenseless to stop it. On this play, Lewis is able to connect on a jumper along the left baseline.
- [2:28, 4th quarter] And so begins Lewis’ crunch-time heroics. With the Cavaliers at the doorstep and trailing by the score of 95-94, Lewis gives the Magic breathing room momentarily by making a corner three in transition. Turkoglu ran the fastbreak very well, attacking the basket and attracting multiple defenders from Cleveland before kicking it out to Lewis for the shot. James tries everything in his power to close out on Lewis and run him off the three-point line, but he’s too late. At this point, Lewis is in a groove offensively and only a glimmer of daylight is all he needs for him to make his jumpshots from the perimeter.
- [0:31, 4th quarter] After Delonte West was able to make a three-pointer to give the Cavaliers a one-point lead, Orlando needs a bucket. Head coach Stan Van Gundy devises a play for Lewis, given that he’s been making shots left and right in the second half. It appears as if the Magic run a staggered 1/5 pick and roll with Alston handling the basketball and Lewis as well as Howard setting the screens. After Lewis sets his screen, he darts to the right corner. The timing on this play is perfect, as Alston comes around the screen set by Howard and is able to make the pass to Lewis. Even tough Zydrunas Ilgauskas is able to contest the shot, Lewis drills it and gives Orlando the lead back at 104-103 before James is able to convert on a three-point play on the next possession to put Cleveland back ahead by two points.
- [0:14, 4th quarter] The Magic are down 106-104 and Van Gundy chooses to put the ball in the hands of Lewis. However, things don’t go as planned. Lewis dribble penetrates into the lane against Anderson Varejao and it seems like he’s able to put up a shot but at the very last second, he aborts that decision and kicks it out to Turkoglu. As Turkoglu dribbles the basketball, Lewis rotates back to the three-point line on the right wing and waves his hands in the air. Varejao, so concerned about Turkoglu attacking the basket, loses sight of Lewis for a moment. Turkoglu passes it to Lewis and it’s as if time stops. Lewis and Varejao are on an island. Lewis, using the jabstep that’s been so effective against Varejao and gives him space to put up a shot, waits a second or two before putting up his three-point attempt. As soon as Lewis shoots it, there was a sense that it was going to go in. And it did.
The Cavaliers tried to respond but no dice, as West and Mo Williams missed shots that would have won them the game. Lewis making that three-pointer changed the complexion of the series immediately, since home-court advantage was taken from Cleveland and never given back as Orlando was able to win in six games.
Lewis was masterful against the Cavaliers and made a name for himself as a clutch playoff performer that didn’t shy away from hitting a big shot. Looking back at his tenure with the Magic, that should be his lasting memory.