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Magic survive season full of tests to make finals

ORLANDO (AP) – Pick a moment. 

All-Star point guard Jameer Nelson going out with a shoulder tear in February. Dwight Howard calling out coach Stan Van Gundy for not getting the ball enough, or losing on four last-second shots in the playoffs. 

The Orlando Magic have survived it all to reach the NBA finals. 

"We've been through everything you could possibly go through in the playoffs in one season," Van Gundy said. 

The Magic knocked off the defending champion Boston Celtics after falling behind in the series 3-2. They eliminated LeBron James and the top-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers, and now Orlando is back in the finals for the first time since 1995. Game 1 is Thursday night at Los Angeles. 

But the Magic aren't yet satisfied. 

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"You can look at everybody in the locker room's eyes as well as coach and tell that we are happy about getting to the finals, but we are not tremendously happy enough yet," forward Rashard Lewis said. "We like winning that silver basketball, but I think the gold basketball will be a little better than that silver one." 

The franchise has been here before. 

Orlando's only other finals appearance ended swiftly, getting swept by the Houston Rockets. After Shaquille O'Neal bolted for Los Angeles in the summer of '96, the franchise collapsed. 

The Magic hit bottom in the 2003-04 season, with coach Doc Rivers getting fired and star Tracy McGrady demanding a trade. They were 21-61 that season. 

The No. 1 pick brought them another Superman. 

Howard has talked about winning a title since he was drafted out of high school. The 23-year-old has quickly honed his skills, and his rare combination of size and speed has helped the Magic rise again. 

"I think we started to bring back some magic in Orlando," Howard said. "I felt that we were a laughingstock around the league. Everybody played the Magic, they thought about Disney World. So I just wanted to change that." 

Consider it done. 

Howard had 40 points and 14 rebounds in a dominating Game 6 win Saturday night to power the Magic to a 4-2 series win over Cleveland. Things aren't getting any easier. 

"Our reward is, especially mine and my coaching staff's, is you get to go from preparing for LeBron to preparing for Kobe," Van Gundy said sarcastically. "That will be a lot of fun." 

Any test the Magic face they will likely be ready for — they've passed everything already. 

Nelson went down in early February, and only a trade-deadline deal to get Rafer Alston from Houston kept them as contenders. Then came the playoffs, which has provided the ultimate heartbreak and satisfaction. 

Andre Iguodala and Thaddeus Young each hit shots in the final moments to give Philadelphia wins in the first round series against the Magic. But they survived. 

They lost on a Glen Davis' shot as time expired in Game 4 of their second round series against Boston. And after the Magic blew a fourth-quarter lead in a devastating Game 5 meltdown, Howard publicly challenged Van Gundy for not getting him the ball enough. But they survived. 

Then came the league MVP. 

James averaged more than 38 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in the conference finals, including a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to win Game 2 and a triple-double to steal Game 5. But again the Magic survived. 

"I don't think very many people thought we could win with all the stuff we've been through," Van Gundy said. 

Now comes the best-in-the-west Lakers. 

The Magic are 2-0 this season against Los Angeles and pose similar matchup problems as they did against Cleveland, with four shooters around Howard who can be potent from outside. But the wins against the Lakers this season were helped in large part by Nelson, who was their leading scorer in both. 

While rumblings of Nelson suiting up for the finals are already heating up again — as they have at the start of every round — that is still unlikely. Magic general manager Otis Smith has repeatedly said Nelson will not play this season and would not be ready until training camp because the risk of injury is too much. 

A Magic spokesman said Sunday that Nelson's rehabilitation is ahead of schedule but that his status remains uncertain. 

For all the Magic have accomplished, there are still questions about consistency. 

The Magic often go in ruts, a streaky shooting team that can light it up one minute and disappear the next. Orlando won't be able to overpower Los Angeles on talent alone like the first three rounds. The Lakers have just as many weapons — if not more — than the Magic. 

Then again, it wouldn't be the first time Orlando was counted out. 

"We've been the underdog all year," forward Tony Battie said. "We'll continue to be the underdog. That's the way we like it."

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