NBA: Suspension behind him, Magic following Lewis’ lead
By ANTONIO GONZALEZ
Associated Press Writer
ORLANDO, Fla.— It might have seemed a little odd on the eve of the Orlando Magic's training camp when Rashard Lewis delivered a message to teammates about "sacrifice" and "unselfishness."
After all, it was Lewis, the Magic's highest-paid player, who was suspended 10 games for testing positive for an elevated testosterone level. The only thing more stunning than his drug test was that he was the one — of all people — to talk about discipline.
Not so shocking anymore.
Overcoming the stigma of the suspension, Lewis has become the example teammates use to explain why the Magic are back in the Eastern Conference finals. A season spent neglecting individual accolades, "Sweet Lew" is again living up to his nickname with some big playoff performances.
"The only thing I felt could stop us this year was guys have egos or being selfish," Lewis said. "My main thing was, at the end of the day, it'll all come down to who's going to sacrifice for that game, that year.
"We got a lot of talent on this team. We got guys that sit on the bench that could go and start on other teams. Just told them the word of this year, the biggest word is 'sacrifice."'
Lewis stayed true to his message, even when it resulted in criticism.
His 14.1 points per game were the fewest of his career since he became a regular starter in the 1999-2000 season with Seattle. Some felt the production was not up to par for a player making $18.8 million this season.
"People have their little he said, she said like, 'This guy's getting paid this amount of money but he's not producing,"' Lewis said.
Things weren't always as bad as they seemed.
Lewis' 43 percent shooting was the same as when he was an All-Star last year. The difference was, with the addition of Vince Carter and a talent-rich roster, Lewis had almost 400 fewer shot attempts this season.
"It was a little tough some times," Lewis said. "Some nights you lose ball games and you're not taking very many shots, it's tough. You look at yourself in the mirror and feel like you could have been the reason that you lost, or you could have been the reason that you could have won if you had been more aggressive and taken more shots."
The message has resonated with teammates.
The Magic swept through the first two rounds and have won 14 straight games. They will face the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals, which start Sunday in Orlando. The Celtics ousted LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in six games after Thursday night's 94-85 win.
After hitting several game-winning shots in last year's run to the NBA finals, Lewis averaged 17 points per game in the second round, showing he can still make shots when needed most.
But it's the individual sacrifices where teammates say he's made his biggest mark.
Carter, an eight-time All-Star, had his lowest scoring numbers in years. Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson saw their scoring averages dip, too.
The Magic, finishing with the league's second-best record behind Cleveland, didn't even have a player in the top 20 in points per game. They all credit Lewis with motivating them to focus on the team's goals first.
"It's hard to be selfish with this group," Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said. "You would stand out, and not in a good way."
The Magic also never let Lewis' suspension become a distraction.
They rolled out to a 17-4 start this season, getting solid stints from newcomers Ryan Anderson and Brandon Bass. Looking back, players believe that early bit of adversity was actually a good thing.
"Nobody wants to see anybody suspended or anything, but I think it helped us in the long run," Nelson said. "We had guys step up big time, and I think it helps us out for this part of the season, the playoffs."
Part of the reason Lewis didn't take much criticism is because he is a lanky, 6-foot-10 forward, even though the supplement he tested positive for contained the steroids precursor DHEA. He also is only the sixth player to test positive for performance-enhancing drugs since the NBA began testing in 1999.
Lewis has maintained the elevated testosterone levels came from an over-the-counter supplement that he didn't know had the banned substance.
"I think it was more of a non-issue than anything because of the fact my career does not have a bad background, not a history of getting in trouble or taking steroids, whatever you want to call it," he said. "I think people gave me the benefit of the doubt that it was a total mistake."
Lewis has made up for it in the playoffs.
He had game-changing 3s in the final seconds of regulation in Games 1 and 4, among others, in the Eastern Conference finals last year to down Cleveland. With Howard sidelined in foul trouble at times in the playoffs this season, Lewis has helped Orlando's offense remain in rhythm.
Never one to shy away from taking the big shot, the biggest thing now for Lewis is knowing when he's needed to take over.
"If we win, I have no problem with taking fewer shots," Lewis said. "But if needed, you'll most definitely see the fire in my eyes."