ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) – Dressed in black, the imposing 7-footer sat near the floor for Game 4 like a casual NBA fan. He was hardly one.

Around here, Shaquille O’Neal means much more.

He represents the link to Orlando’s glorious past, however brief it may be. Shaq, a basket-breaking behemoth with the power of several men, led the Magic to their only NBA finals appearance in 1995, a short visit that ended with an embarrassing sweep by Houston.

The Magic and their maniacal fans have longed for a second shot at a title.

They can almost touch it.

Orlando moved within one win of ending its 14-year finals drought on Tuesday night as Dwight Howard, the Magic’s present-day Diesel, scored 27 points – 10 in overtime – in a 116-114 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers to take a 3-1 lead in the Eastern Conference finals and shove LeBron James and his not-so-supportive cast to the edge of an early summer break.

A razor-thin series – two one-point games, and a two-pointer in OT – where the last team with the ball usually emerges victorious, could end Thursday night. Maybe.

“We’re up 3-1, but we can’t relax,” said Rashard Lewis, whose catch-and-shoot 3-pointer with 4.1 seconds left in regulation was easily Game 4’s most dramatic shot. “Anything can happen. We got to go to Cleveland looking to try and close these guys out.”

The Magic got more good news Wednesday when the NBA rescinded Howard’s Game 4 technical foul, his sixth of the playoffs. Under league rules, Howard would’ve been automatically suspended for one game had he received a seventh technical during the postseason.

Orlando heads into Game 5 with no fear of the road. They finished off the defending champion Boston Celtics on their famed parquet floor in a Game 7 in the previous round and have a chance to end Cleveland’s dream season on the court of King James.

The MVP, who scored 44 points in Game 4 and has done everything but drive the team bus in the series, won’t go quietly.

Following Game 4, James, averaging 42.3 points, 7.3 rebound and 7.3 assists, said he’s ready for his next shot at the impressive Magic.

“I’m up for the challenge,” said James, who couldn’t replicate his Game 2 heroics and missed a tough 3-pointer at the buzzer in Game 4. “And I think my play, my leadership has spoke for that. So I will be ready, and I think our guys will be ready also.”

Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy, who doesn’t sleep well even when things are going great, knows if anyone can turn this series around it’s the magnificent James.

“This thing is a long, long, long way from over, just like the games in this series have been,” he said. “When you’ve got a guy as great as him on the other side, you’re a long way from done.”

The odds are stacked against the Cavaliers.

In the NBA’s 62-year postseason history, 190 teams have taken a 3-1 lead in a series and 182 of them have won. More daunting for the Cavaliers is that the Magic have won 10 of the past 14 meetings between the teams, and were one of three teams to win at Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena this season.

James and Co. are running out of time and answers.

Cleveland’s matchup problems are glaring: Height, depth, speed. You name it, Orlando has it over Cleveland.

When the Cavs have concentrated on stopping Howard down low, the Magic make 3-pointers (they hit 17 of 38 in Game 4), and when Cleveland focuses its defense on guarding the perimeter, Howard destroys them near the basket.

Care for some arsenic? Or hemlock?

Orlando’s bench has been a major factor, too, as Rafer Alston (26 points) and Mickael Pietrus (17) gave the Magic a huge lift.

If not for James’ miraculous shot to win Game 2, this series would be over and so would the LeBron vs. Kobe finals envisioned by many, but not the guys in blue and white.

The Cavaliers can’t figure out what to do next.

“We’re breaking down in areas we haven’t broken down all year,” James said. “We got to give up something.”

In this series, James has become a solo artist in a tight-knit basketball band now splitting up because of creative differences.

Cavs guard Mo Williams may soon become known as the guy who couldn’t back up his guarantee. An All-Star guard who hasn’t played close to one, Williams, who missed 10 of 15 shots in Game 4, stuck out his neck by promising Cleveland would rally to win the series.

It will take three straight wins over a team rolling like it hasn’t since the days of Shaq, Penny Hardaway and Nick Anderson.

“All the pressure’s on them,” said Orlando rookie guard Courtney Lee.

James lingered in the corridor outside Cleveland’s locker room following his postgame press conference on Tuesday night. He chatted with friends and family, trying to explain what went wrong for the third time in this series.

James was in no rush. And then, Howard and Lewis stepped through a curtain, creating an awkward moment that there was only one way to remedy. The MVP spun, adjusted his designer sunglasses and walked off, heading toward the team charter.

The Cavs left for Ohio, looking for some magic of their own.

AP-ES-05-27-09 1535EDT


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