"But Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic against Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers is not a bad alternative to the NBA Finals everyone considered a foregone conclusion for months.
So LeBron James is out, finally looking fallible in Cleveland's 103-90 loss in Orlando on Saturday night. All of a sudden, James looked tired as his shots bonked off the rim -- tired of carrying an incomplete team and a city full of longing.
So The King is done. Rafael Nadal lost, too, at the French Open. So things don't go as planned. So what?
In fact what we have starting Thursday is a fresher, less commercial (adidas trumps Nike!) basketball story line, especially for us in Florida.
The Orlando-Los Angeles matchup makes it much easier to root for the underdog, in this case rumpled coach Stan Van Gundy over smug Phil Jackson and the amiable Howard over Bryant, who works so industriously on his image that he reeks of insincerity.
When Howard smiles, it's spontaneous, contagious and free of the baggage Bryant carries.
And what coach is more deserving of a title shot than Van Gundy, who was shoved aside clumsily in Miami to accommodate the egos of Shaquille O'Neal and Pat Riley as the Heat made its run to the 2006 championship. Van Gundy gallantly cited devotion to his wife back then, and he unabashedly thanked her Saturday, when she was home sick.
O'Neal, who led Orlando to its last Finals appearance in 1995, gives us a rich subplot. In one of his fits of childishness, he lashed out at Howard for copying his moves and called Van Gundy the ''master of panic.'' Then Shaq -- who left the franchise high and dry when he bolted for L.A. in 1996 -- had the gall to sit courtside at Amway Arena last week.
Van Gundy and Howard have refused to lash back and now they're in the Finals, where some are picking them to win in six or seven games but certainly not to get swept as Shaq's Magic team was by Houston.
The Lakers are better than the Cavaliers, but Orlando presents so many problems with its inside-outside balance that this Disneyland versus Disney World series could be wonderfully intriguing compared to the LeBron-Kobe showdown that couldn't have lived up to the hype.
Anybody want some leftover puppet commercials?
Instead of James we get to watch Howard, who won the NBA's Slam Dunk contest wearing a Superman cape. Like Bryant and James, Howard came to the NBA directly from high school. Five years later, he is coming into his own, as he showed with his 40-point, 14-rebound performance in the Game 6 clincher. Tim Duncan once said: ``I'm just glad that I will be out of the league when he is peaking.''
When Howard was surrounded by Cavs and couldn't execute one of his slithery dunks, he passed to Hedo Turkoglu, Rashard Lewis, Mickael Pietrus or Rafer Alston, who nailed 12 three-pointers.
The Lakers, not as cohesive a team as the Magic in the playoffs and two-time losers to the Magic during the regular season, will have their hands full, although Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum should provide tighter defense and more counterattacking options compared with Cleveland.
''I believe in my team,'' Howard said. ``I believe if we come out every night and play our brand of basketball we can beat anybody.''
The Cavaliers go back to Cleveland, which has suffered through 45 years without a pro championship. The load was too heavy for James, despite his insistence that he loved the pressure while averaging 41.2 points, 8.6 rebounds and 8.2 assists through the first five games.
''I was built for it, man,'' he said. ``I don't die down.''"