James, Howard emerging as top young NBA stars

Published 3:25 am Tuesday, May 19, 2009

INDEPENDENCE (AP) — Two of the NBA’s youngest ambassadors, they share infectious smiles, great senses of humor and unchained joy when they play. In a league loaded with remarkably gifted athletes, this pair stands out as physical phenomenons.

Superheroes in shorts.

One is Superman, a powerful, 6-foot-11 shot-blocking machine who went so far as to reject his coach during the postseason.

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The other’s a King, and based on recent royal command performances, his reign may be just beginning.

Dwight Howard and LeBron James have known each other for years. Casual friends, former No. 1 overall draft picks as teenagers and U.S. Olympic teammates who won gold medals together last summer, they have been undeniable forces on the court this season.

And they are about to collide.

When the Orlando Magic and Cleveland Cavaliers meet in this year’s Eastern Conference final starting Wednesday, all eyes will be on Howard and James, the getting-better-by-the-day superstars who have each elevated their games and carried their teams to new heights.

‘‘We both work hard in the offseason, and we’re both happy we’re in this situation right now,’’ James said following practice on Monday.

Orlando’s landing in the conference final was nothing short of magical.

In dethroning the defending champion Celtics on Sunday by winning Game 7 in Boston, the Magic became the first team in 33 tries to overcome a 3-2 series deficit against the league’s most storied franchise. Howard scored 12 points with 16 rebounds and five blocks in the finale.

Orlando’s surprising comeback began after Howard criticized coach Stan Van Gundy following a loss in Game 5, when the Magic blew a 14-point fourth-quarter lead. Howard was upset that he didn’t touch the ball enough late in the game and questioned some of Van Gundy’s substitution patterns.

By the time the Magic made the Celtics disappear, all seemed to be forgotten.

‘‘Me and coach talked,’’ Howard said. ‘‘Everything is great. We have a new stat that we came up with. When we call out the coach, we are 3-0.’’

Turning serious for a moment, the fun-loving Howard, who often does spot-on imitations of his coach, attributed Orlando’s recovery to growing older and wiser.

‘‘We have matured as a team,’’ he said. ‘‘We have learned that we can’t allow frustration to take over us during games or after games. We have to play through all that and Stan has been a great mentor and a coach for me personally, knowing that there are going to be nights when I am frustrated. He has always found a way to motivate me to keep myself and my teammates in line.’’

While Howard may enjoy communicating his thoughts to legions of his followers on Twitter, the 23-year-old has an old-school sensibility when it comes to relationships and learning from mistakes. The league’s defensive player of the year, now deeper in the postseason than ever before, is beginning to understand what he needs to block out and what he needs to embrace.

‘‘He holds himself to a pretty high standard,’’ Magic general manager Otis Smith said. ‘‘He’s learning a lot. It’s the postseason. Things are going to happen. You learn by experience, and some things he still has to learn. That’s the playoffs.’’

James, on the contrary, has yet to experience adversity of any sort in this postseason. He and the Cavaliers are a perfect 8-0, with all eight wins coming by 10 points or more. It’s been easy so far, but James and his teammates have been through enough end-of-the-year drama to know tougher times are ahead.

‘‘It’s going to be a tough series,’’ Cavs center Zydrunas Ilgauskas said. ‘‘I wouldn’t be surprised if it goes all seven games.’’

As an outside observer, James viewed Howard’s comments about Van Gundy as signs of the center’s development and frustration.

‘‘If he’s the leader of the team, he has a right to call out some things as wrong,’’ James said. ‘‘I didn’t see it as a bad. There are always ways to handle situations like that, and he didn’t do it the right way — maybe. But they still won the series and learned from that situation.’’

The Cavaliers intend to rely on their lessons after going 1-2 against the Magic during the regular season. Cleveland suffered its worst loss, 116-87, at Orlando on April 3. The 29-point setback was humbling for the Cavs, who contained Howard (20 points, 11 rebounds) but couldn’t stop Orlando’s outside game as the Magic made 13 of 27 3-pointers.

While Cleveland’s defensive game plan will focus on limiting Orlando’s looks, Howard can’t be ignored. Under assistant coach Patrick Ewing’s care, Howard’s offensive game has blossomed.

‘‘Before he was just a shot blocker, somebody who would just clog the lane, dunk the ball and that was pretty much it,’’ Cavs forward Joe Smith said. ‘‘Now he’s developing his game and his footwork and that’s only going to make him a tougher player to guard.’’

Like James and Howard, Smith was the first player selected in the draft. The 14-year veteran appreciates the pressure of those enormous expectations and has been impressed with how the young All-Stars have handled their early success. Smith hasn’t played with Howard, but sees him as being very similar to James.

‘‘He seems like a joy to be around,’’ Smith said. ‘‘Like I say about LeBron, when your leader is that way, everybody feeds of him and wants to go out there and perform up to or over your level.’’