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Your Move, Rashard Lewis

In the wake of Dwight Howard's suspension for tomorrow night's Game 6 between his Orlando Magic and the opponent Philadelphia 76ers, Magic reserve centers Marcin Gortat and Tony Battie will have more responsibilities. Filling in for a player of Howard's caliber--24.0 points, 15.8 boards, and 2.8 blocks per game this postseason--is a tall order for anyone, but especially those two, who are career-long role-players. Battie played 15 seconds in Game 5, and earned a DNP-CD in Game 4. Gortat is underrated outside Orlando and a fine player, but obviously is not in Dwight's class offensively. However, the pressure to perform is on everyone, not just the men who will mop-up Howard's minutes.

But most of all, it's on Rashard Lewis.

The Magic (in)famously signed Lewis to a six-year, $118 million contract despite his never distinguishing himself as a top-shelf player in the NBA. Yes, Lewis has performed well in his first two seasons with the Magic, with solid per-game averages of 18.0 points and 5.6 boards on 44.7% from the field and 40.3% from three-point range. That said, he has yet to turn in many signature games, apart from two in last year's playoffs: 33 points, 6 rebounds, and 5 assists in Orlando's lone defeat of the Detroit Pistons in the semifinals; and 27 points, 13 rebounds, and 5 assists in Orlando's Game 4 victory over the Toronto Raptors in the quarterfinals. After the Magic lost Game 3 to Philadelphia last Friday, Orlando Sentinel columnist Mike Bianchi took Lewis to task for not producing at a level commensurate with his salary:

We keep waiting for Lewis to come up huge, but he never really does. He's rarely disappointing, but he's not dazzling either. He too often disappears for long stretches as he did in the first half Friday.

When you make more than LeBron James, Dwyane Wayne and Carmelo Anthony, you're expected to put up a 40-point game every once in a while, and maybe even a handful of 30-point games during the course of a season. Lewis has scored 30 only twice in two years in Orlando.

With his team's leading scorer out, Lewis has a golden opportunity to silence his critics. Philadelphia has defended Lewis and fellow starting forward Hedo Turkoglu exceptionally well in this series, assigning defenders to stay with them at any costs and not to double-team Howard in the lane. As a result, starting guards Courtney Lee and Rafer Alston had to pick up the load. Both have played well, yet Orlando can only get so far when counting on its fourth and fifth options to win games on their own. With Lee out for Game 6 due to a fractured sinus--another casualty of Dwight's elbows--and probably longer, the offensive deficit is even more pronounced. Prior to Howard's elbow conking him in the face five minutes into Game 5, Lee had been no worse than the Magic's third-best playoff performer. As erivera7 noted, Lee's backups have not played well of late.

Make no mistake now: Rashard Lewis is now 1 and 1A on offense, and given Howard's incredible health streak, he may not see an opportunity like this one again in his career. Relying on a solid-yet-unspectacular performer like Lewis is hardly a recipe for disaster, but it doesn't exactly inspire confidence. However, he has slowly come into his own in this series against Philly, tying Howard for the team lead in Game 5 scoring with 24 points, 13 of them in the fourth period. Said Lewis in his post-game press conference:

"[....] I've been getting a little bit more of a feel each game of my spots when I can score, where I can score. And I know the defense is coming quick when I'm on the post and not leaving me out on the perimeter so I have to be aggressive like I was tonight, driving to the basket or turnaround and taking a quick shot before the double team gets there."

He sounds like a man who knows what he has to do. With Howard out of the picture tomorrow night, Philadelphia will be free to focus all its attention on Lewis. A veteran of 808 NBA games in his 11-year career, he knows how to handle the pressure. Goodness knows there'll be a lot of it. The Magic and their fans are now counting on Lewis to come up big in one of the team's most daunting games in recent memory: a chance to eliminate their opponent, on the road, without the services of two starters.

Let's hope he's up to the task.