Cavs fall to Magic without LeBron

Parked in the foul lane, Dwight Howard gave a two-hand shove to

Cleveland’s mascot, Moondog, who turned his tail and taunted

Orlando’s star center.

The crowd cheered. Howard laughed.

It was play time.

Next time, things will be much more serious between the Magic

and Cavaliers.

Mickael Pietrus scored all 12 of his points in the fourth

quarter and Jameer Nelson hit a big 3-pointer in the closing

minutes as Orlando geared up for the postseason with a 98-92 win

Sunday over Cleveland, which gave LeBron James another day off to

rest for the NBA playoffs.

Shortly before tip-off, the Magic learned that James would

sit out his third straight game and that Shaquille O’Neal still

wasn’t ready to come back from an injury.

“The air went out of our locker room when they found out he

(James) wasn’t playing,” coach Stan Van Gundy said. “When those

guys weren’t playing, we had a lot of guys that didn’t want to

play, either. We wanted to play against their team and we really

weren’t interested in playing against the other guys,

unfortunately.”

Cleveland’s regular-season home finale was little more than a

glorified exhibition game as both teams went through the motions

while gearing up for the postseason to begin next weekend.

“We’re just trying to get to the playoffs as healthy as

possible,” said Cleveland’s Mo Williams, who scored 19 with nine

assists. “We know that come next Saturday or Sunday, we aren’t

going to have to worry about it.”

Pietrus was a matchup nightmare in the playoffs last season

for Cleveland, averaging 13.9 points in the Eastern Conference

finals when the Magic eliminated the Cavs in six games. The

6-foot-6 swingman made a pair of 3s to open the fourth quarter

Sunday and Nelson delivered his dagger 3 with 2:53 left to put

Orlando ahead 96-88.

Howard scored 22 points with 13 rebounds and six blocks. He

grasped why the Cavaliers decided to sit James, but wished his

Olympic teammate had dressed.

“We all wanted to play against those guys, but we understand

what they’re trying to do,” Howard said. “It would’ve been fun. I

think everybody wanted to see the Cavs with all their guys and the

Magic with everybody playing. It was disappointing, but I’m glad we

got the win.”

Losing to the LeBron-less Cavs wasn’t an option.

“It would’ve been embarrassing,” Howard said.

Delonte West had 21 points, Antawn Jamison 19 and Zydrunas

Ilgauskas 12 for the Cavaliers, who finished the regular season

35-6 at home.

James watched the game from the bench along with O’Neal, who

has been out since tearing a thumb ligament Feb. 25 and hasn’t been

cleared by doctors to play. Cleveland anticipates having him in the

postseason and will need the 7-foot-1 center to get past Howard and

the Magic.

The Cavaliers had no answer inside during last year’s series

against Orlando’s big man, who muscled his way to the rim past

Ilgauskas, Ben Wallace, Anderson Varejao and anyone else in his

way. O’Neal, if he’s healthy, believes he can neutralize the

Magic’s Superman.

“They’ve added a little more bulk on the inside and they all

try to make it tough for us to get in the paint,” Howard said.

“We’re still going to play our brand of basketball – shoot 3s, play

inside and out and play defense.”

Cleveland coach Mike Brown sat James again, giving the

reigning MVP – and almost certainly the next one, too – additional

rest for the playoffs. Dressed in a beige sports coat and matching

slacks, James sat at the end of Cleveland’s bench and even took a

turn behind the TV microphone during the first quarter of ABC’s

national broadcast.

During his interview, James discussed the Cavs’ roster

upgrades and said the team’s biggest acquisition, O’Neal, has lost

20 pounds since getting hurt.

The Cavs have been hoping to get O’Neal back to shake off

some expected rust, but Brown said team doctors have not yet

cleared the 17-year veteran.

James and O’Neal left Quicken Loans Arena without speaking to

reporters.

Van Gundy wasn’t gloating about Orlando’s win, which tied the

season series between the clubs who seem to be on a collision

course at 2-2.

“We got a win, but nothing else,” he said. “It was a bad

basketball game from our standpoint, but we won. I’m not going to

complain. What else do I take from it? Nothing.”

The defending Eastern Conference champion Magic played their

starters at least 24 minutes and worked out a few late-season

kinks. Orlando has wrapped up the No. 2 seed in the East and can

still beat out the Los Angeles Lakers for the second-best overall

record, which would give the Magic home-court advantage if the two

teams meet in the finals for the second straight year.

“We’re trying to win every game, because they will all mean

something in the end,” said Vince Carter, who had six points on

3-of-10 shooting. “I think we’re ready to go.”

NOTES: The Cavs sold out all 41 home dates for the

first time and have 77 straight sellouts. … Orlando center Marcin

Gortat of Poland honored fallen Polish President Lech Kaczynski by

writing the fatal flight number on his sneakers and writing

Kaczynski’s name on the tape around his wrist. Kaczynski and dozens

of political, military and religious leaders were killed in a plane

crash Saturday. … Van Gundy has been promoting Howard for league

MVP, but isn’t holding out much hope. “We all know how the vote is

going to go,” Van Gundy said. “LeBron will win the MVP every year

until he retires. For the next eight or 10 years, LeBron basically

has to go into the year and lose the MVP award.”