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Sunday, December 24, 2006

Follow the Leader: LeBron Scores 19 Fourth Quarter Points, Carries Cavs to Win Over Magic

LeBron James outscored the Orlando Magic 19-18 in the fourth quarter and carried the Cleveland Cavaliers to an 86-83 victory at Quicken Loans Arena on Saturday night. James finished with a game-high 32 points but he only had nine points in the first half and 19 points with 4:04 left in the game. He then scored all 13 of the Cavs' points from that point until just 19.2 seconds remained, singlehandedly taking the Cavs from a 73-72 deficit to an 85-78 lead. Along the way, James became the youngest player in NBA history to score 7000 career points. Zydrunas Ilgauskas contributed a season-high 22 points for Cleveland, 18 of them in the first half. Drew Gooden was the third Cavalier to score in double figures (14 points, 12 rebounds). Dwight Howard paced Orlando with 17 points and 13 rebounds. The Southeast Division-leading Magic once had the best record in the Eastern Conference but they have now lost two in a row and seven of their last 10, dropping them to third in the Eastern Conference, mere percentage points ahead of the Cavs, who snapped a three game losing streak.

Who would have guessed that Ilgauskas would be the early focal point of the offense? Anyone who listened to Coach Mike Brown's pregame standup--in a performance worthy of the best fortune tellers, he told the assembled media: "We can definitely do a better job of getting him the ball on the low post...if he's right around the 15-17 shot mark, that's where he should be...We need to get him the ball and he needs to be aggressive."

Coach Brown also addressed what the Cavaliers must do to become a more consistent team: "One of the things is just focus--to focus a little bit better. The second thing is to bring effort. The last thing is that we want to make sure that we are trying to defend and that we are trying to cover for one another...we have to rely on each other and trust that our teammates are going to be there to cover up any mistake that an individual makes."

Orlando rode strong starts by Howard (7 points) and Grant Hill to take a 25-21 lead after the first quarter. The teams battled to a 19-19 standstill in the second quarter. After Coach Brown suggested that Ilgauskas should be getting 15-17 shots, the 7-3 center took care of that in the first half alone, shooting 7-15, many of the attempts coming on taps and tip ins; he had five offensive rebounds. No one else on either team attempted more than nine shots. James was a quiet 3-6 from the field and 3-7 from the free throw line for nine points. He had two rebounds, one assist and three turnovers and did not have the impact that he typically does. Howard already had a double-double (10 points, 10 rebounds) at intermission. Orlando shot .459 from the field while Cleveland shot just .356 but the Cavaliers grabbed 10 more offensive rebounds and converted on enough of those extra possessions to only trail 44-40.

In the third quarter, the trends that developed in the first half continued: Orlando shot acceptably (.467), Cleveland shot poorly (.381) and Cleveland obtained extra shot attempts by crashing the offensive boards. The Cavs outscored the Magic 22-21 but still trailed 65-62 heading into the final period.

The Cavaliers stayed close throughout the first eight minutes of the fourth quarter, until James made the difference with his tremendous closing surge. At halftime, a pessimistic Clevelander asked me what reason is there to believe that the Cavs are better than the Magic since Cleveland trailed at halftime on their home court. I offered two thoughts: (1) the Cavs did not look like a worse team than the Magic, they just went through a half in which they shot poorly; (2) the Cavs have a superstar who can carry them down the stretch in a close game but the Magic lack such a player (Howard is a blossoming stud on the boards but still has not completely developed his low post offensive game--when he does, the rest of the league better look out). I suggested that even in what seemed to be a poor outing for James he could still end up with 25-30 points and make the decisive plays down the stretch. Sure enough, James answered the bell in the clutch and showed the difference between a superstar and an All-Star.

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Notes From Courtside:

A sizable contingent of Duke fans showed up to cheer Orlando rookie J.J. Redick. It's a good thing that they showed up early, though, because the only shots he took happened during warmups; he received a DNP-CD (Did Not Play-Coach's Decision), which figures to happen in most close games this year in which Orlando is not shorthanded. The Magic spent a lottery pick to acquire a player who is not better at his best skill (shooting) than a second round pick (Travis Diener) who was already on their roster. Diener gets the spare minutes at guard that do not go to starters Jameer Nelson and Grant Hill and primary reserves Carlos Arroyo and Keyon Dooling. Prior to Saturday's game, Redick spent 15 games on the inactive list, received eight DNP-CDs and played in just four games, averaging 3.4 ppg. After he completed his warmups, he jogged off the court and went straight to the locker room without stopping to even acknowledge his fans, let alone sign any autographs. My advice: enjoy having fans in NBA arenas while you can and don't take this opportunity for granted. I wonder how many Duke fans show up to watch Trajan Langdon play for CSKA Moscow?

In contrast to Redick's behavior, Orlando's Howard--who had an equal or greater number of fans at the game--spent several minutes greeting fans and signing autographs. He bent over and signed a basketball for a little kid who barely came up to his kneecaps. I don't know if he signed something for every single fan--that probably is not possible when you are that popular--but he signed a lot of items.

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Everyone on Orlando seems to have his own workout routine. Redick and Diener fired jumpers, mainly from 17-18 feet and beyond. Grant Hill started with short shots, then jumpers and then free throws; his routine reminded me a little of Michael Jordan's--minus the turnaround jumpers from the elbows--and a little of Reggie Miller's--minus the large number of three pointers. Several of the big men--including Howard, Darko Milicic, Bo Outlaw and James Augustine--worked on post moves against Assistant Coach Mark Bryant, a former player who I like to call the hardest working assistant in the league. He works up as much of a sweat as some of the players.

Hedo Turkoglu, who is day to day with a sprained ankle and was placed on the inactive list for Saturday's game, found a way to keep his shooting eye sharp without using his ankle. Lying on the floor outside the three point line on the right baseline, he banked in a three pointer. His next attempt from the same spot rimmed in and out. If the NBA revives the old "Horse" games at halftime, I think he is ready.

posted by David Friedman @ 12:46 AM

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