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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Orlando Opens NBA China Games 2007 With 90-86 Win Over Cleveland

With Cleveland's starters watching from the bench down the stretch, Orlando posted a 90-86 win in the opening contest of NBA China Games 2007. Dwight Howard led both teams with 31 points and 14 rebounds. He is no longer relegated to picking up other people's scraps on the offensive boards; the offense runs through him and he has worked on a face-up game to go along with his power dunks. Howard also made his free throws (13-16), something which could add several points to his average if he can keep it up for a whole season. He shot 9-17 from the field, with the only blemish on the boxscore being his game-high five turnovers. Jameer Nelson had 24 points and six assists, shooting 6-10 from the field and 12-12 from the free throw line; he was simply too quick for any of Cleveland's guards. Rashard Lewis did not play due to a sprained ankle. LeBron James led Cleveland with 17 points in 28 minutes and Larry Hughes added 16 points.

The valuable information that we can derive from two jet-lagged NBA teams playing a preseason game in Shanghai, China is somewhat limited. Obviously, Orlando will be a much better team with Lewis in the starting lineup, so maybe Cleveland's 14 point first half lead is deceptive. On the other hand, the Cavaliers are without the services of holdout free agents Anderson Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic, who ESPN2's Hubie Brown rightly called two of their top six players (actually, Brown repeatedly called Pavlovic "Petrovic," an uncharacteristic mistake for the Hall of Famer). When/if they are back in the fold Cleveland will be a much stronger and deeper team. Cleveland started James, Hughes, Drew Gooden, Damon Jones and Zydrunas Ilgauskas, while Orlando countered with Howard, Nelson, Hedo Turkoglu, Keith Bogans and J.J. Redick. Before the first substitution was made at the 5:47 mark of the first quarter, Cleveland led 19-8. Two things that remain constant about the Cavaliers are that they play good defense and they rebound. Coach Mike Brown has spoken of his plan to add some more wrinkles to the offense this season and in the early going the Cavs utilized a lot of movement and screening to good effect. Ilgauskas had eight of the 19 points and Hughes had five, taking advantage of his matchup with Redick. Everyone seems to think that Redick will have a breakout year because of Coach Stan Van Gundy's wide open system and because Howard and Lewis will draw a lot of defensive attention. I disagree. Redick wowed people with a couple good summer league games and then tailed off badly. Similarly, he started out the preseason with some solid games but shot 1-6 against Cleveland, finishing with three points in 33 minutes. His only basket was a wide open three pointer and he also shot an airball and a brick (brief segue: whoever wrote the copy for the TV ad that asserts that Redick is the greatest shooter of all-time is either legally drunk or criminally insane. Ever heard of Jerry West? Rick Mount? Pete Maravich? Reggie Miller? Ray Allen? Redick is not even the best Orlando shooter of all-time and may not be the best shooter on the current roster). Even if Redick can average double figures for a season--and I doubt that very much--he will give up much more at the defensive end, where opposing shooting guards will have the delicious choices of driving right around him, posting him up or simply catching and shooting right over him. Hughes is not much of a postup player, but he availed himself of options one and three several times throughout the game and even when he did not score on his drives the resulting defensive breakdowns provided offensive rebounding opportunities. Expect Van Gundy to ultimately go with a better defender as the starting shooting guard; in fact, that is exactly what happened at the start of the third quarter as Bogans shifted to shooting guard and the Magic played their best ball of the game (not counting the meaningless fourth quarter when Cleveland's best players were out). Watch Redick's minutes dwindle as the season wears on and his body is not able to withstand the demands of playing against the best shooting guards. Maybe Redick can carve out a role as a 15 mpg spot up shooter in Van Gundy's offense but he will have to not only show something more at the defensive end of the court but also prove that he can maintain his shooting stroke even when he is fatigued.

The Magic closed the gap to 23-20 by the end of the first quarter (Orlando made a 9-2 run when Redick was replaced by Pat Garrity). The second quarter opened with reserves playing against reserves and Cleveland went on a quick 11-0 run. Van Gundy inserted Howard and Nelson back in the game and they scored Orlando's next 14 points, by which time Cleveland's lead had shrunk to 40-34. The Cavs were only up 46-42 at halftime.

Orlando briefly took the lead in the third quarter (53-50) before Cleveland regrouped and went up by 10, 70-60. James scored nine points in the period and the Cavs led 72-64 going into the final 12 minutes. Orlando outscored Cleveland 26-14 in the fourth quarter but these are the important numbers: each Orlando starter played at least 32 minutes, while no Cleveland starter played more than 28 minutes and the difference largely came as a result of Cleveland's top players sitting out down the stretch. In other words, Cleveland was rotating a lot of players and trying out different combinations, while Orlando placed a greater emphasis on winning the game. This is not surprising considering that the Cavs made it to the Finals last year while the Magic lost in the first round of the playoffs. Rather than breaking down a completely meaningless fourth quarter, let's consider what we saw overall from several key players on both teams:

1) We've already talked about Howard's game; if he can maintain his improved shooting touch then he could very well average 25 ppg this year.

2) James did what most veterans try to do in preseason games: run up and down the court, get some work in, avoid injury and and then call it a day after less than 30 minutes. He was productive and will again be one of the very best players in the league this year. Brown said, "He is the premier small forward in the game, arguably. He and Kobe Bryant and 1 and 2 or 2 and 1--however you want to look at that--as the premier player in the league."

3) Cleveland's surprise playoff contributor Daniel Gibson did not play but if he can be productive over the course of an entire season and Hughes can stay healthy then the Cavs can get by without Pavlovic. Hughes moved well and seems to be completely healthy; Cleveland's record since they acquired him is much better when he plays than when he sits.

4) Nelson can be a dynamic offensive player but his defense is not great. Also, if he and Redick play together then the Magic backcourt is very small.

5) Ilgauskas and Gooden had typically solid efforts on the boards (nine and 11 rebounds respectively). They may not be "name" players but they played a significant role in Cleveland's success last year. The big question--pardon the pun--for Cleveland is who will get Varejao's minutes if he is not re-signed. Without him the Cavs lack frontcourt depth.

6) Cleveland reserve guards Devin Brown and Shannon Brown did not shoot well but showed some signs that they could contribute off of the bench this season. They are both good athletes and if they commit to playing good defense then Coach Brown will include them in his rotation.

posted by David Friedman @ 6:03 PM

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