Magic host showdown with LeBron, Cavs


For two of the top contenders to represent the Eastern Conference in this year’s NBA finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Orlando Magic certainly aren’t coming off championship-caliber performances.

Still, with the postseason looming, there will be a playoff-like atmosphere in Orlando on Friday night, when LeBron James’ Cavs and Dwight Howard’s Magic each try to rebound from a disappointing defeat and earn the upper hand in a potential conference finals preview.

With two of the league’s brightest stars leading the way, Cleveland (61-14) and Orlando (55-19) have been among the NBA’s top teams all season, and they’re both hoping to dethrone defending conference and NBA champion Boston.

But they also may have to go through each other – an interesting prospect for the Cavs considering they’ve dropped seven of their last 10 against the Magic.

They also needed a controversial comeback in the final minute to beat Orlando 97-93 on March 17 and avoid what would have been just their second home loss of the season.

“Maybe we’ll see them again, deep in the playoffs,” James said after that game.

That was part of a franchise-record 13-game winning streak for Cleveland that vaulted the club to the NBA’s best record and further cemented its status as the team to beat in the East. The Cavs still hold a two-game lead on the Los Angeles Lakers for home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.

But the streak came to an unexpected halt Thursday in Washington, where the Wizards – who’ve clinched last place in the East – beat Cleveland 109-101. It was the most points the Cavs’ league-best defense has allowed in a loss all season.

The Magic’s recent stumble may have been more costly as they jockey with the Celtics for the conference’s No. 2 seed. Orlando is a game behind Boston, although the teams are tied in the loss column.

That wouldn’t have been the case had the Magic protected their home court against Toronto on Wednesday night, but they lost 99-95 to snap their own six-game winning streak.

“We’ve been taking a lot of things for granted,” Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy said. “We’ve got a real tough stretch coming up here, and if we continue to play like this, it could get real ugly. … Hopefully, it will serve as a wake-up call.”

Orlando’s next three games may be their toughest before the postseason, as they travel to face Atlanta and Houston after Friday’s game.

That’s not to say the Magic made it look easy against Toronto. Despite 30 points and nine rebounds from Howard, the Magic were inefficient offensively, shooting 40.8 percent from the field and getting just 10 points from the league’s lowest-scoring bench. They were also outrebounded 49-35.

Van Gundy was more upset with himself and the officiating than his team’s play last month against the Cavs.

The coach said he wished he had called more plays for Howard, who took just eight shots and had 13 points, and he fumed about a 3-second violation called on his All-Star center after James’ go-ahead 3-pointer in the final minute.

“You won’t see that call again. That, I guarantee you,” Van Gundy said. “You will not see, with the game on the line, a 3-second call in the last 10 seconds. That’s part of the reason they’re 30-1 at home. They’re a very good team, and when you get calls like that (expletive), you’re in pretty good shape.”

James had 43 points in that game, but the presumptive MVP candidate’s 31 points, nine rebounds and six assists weren’t enough against the Wizards.

The loss dropped Cleveland to 25-13 on the road this season, including a 99-88 loss at Orlando on Jan. 29. The winner of Friday’s game will capture the season series.