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Monday, May 18, 2009

Cleveland Versus Orlando Preview

Eastern Conference Finals

#1 Cleveland (66-16) vs. #3 Orlando (59-23)

Season series: Orlando, 2-1

Orlando can win if…the Magic shoot a high percentage from three point range while also establishing Dwight Howard as an offensive threat and if they keep LeBron James out of the paint without letting his supporting cast feast on open shots.

Cleveland will win because…the Cavs are too big, too strong, too deep and too good defensively. A depleted Boston team forced the Magic to go the distance, so a fully rested Cleveland team featuring James plus All-Star Mo Williams and a host of productive, playoff-tested veterans will be too much for the Magic to handle.

Other things to consider: Although the Magic won the season series, that does not really tell us much; the teams only played three times and in the first meeting, a 99-88 Magic victory, the Magic still had All-Star point guard Jameer Nelson--who later suffered a season-ending injury--while the Cavs were without the services of starting center Zydrunas Ilgauskas and starting shooting guard Delonte West; also, Joe Smith, who is sixth on the Cavs in playoff minutes played, had not yet been reacquired by the Cavs. In the second meeting, a 97-93 Cleveland home win, the Cavs were at full strength and the Magic had their current roster. The third and final meeting was the second game of a road back to back and third game in four nights for Cleveland, while Orlando had enjoyed a day off after playing a home game. Not surprisingly, the Magic ran the Cavs out of the gym, 116-87. The most important thing now is how the teams match up, because there are no more back to back or three games in four night scenarios.

You can find a more in depth take on this series in my newest article for CavsNews.com (6/19/15 edit: the link to CavsNews.com no longer works, so I have posted the original article below):

Although the Cleveland Cavaliers posted the best regular season record in the NBA and swept through the first two rounds of the playoffs in record-setting fashion, some people believe that the Orlando Magic will pose a very difficult challenge for the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals. TNT’s Charles Barkley has already gone on record predicting an Orlando victory, asserting that the Magic match up well with the Cavs and have a more versatile offensive attack with Dwight Howard in the paint surrounded by three point shooters. Throw in the facts that Orlando won the season series 2-1—including a 116-87 blowout—and that Orlando just dethroned the defending champion Celtics by winning game seven in Boston and there seem to be legitimate reasons to think that the Magic can beat the Cavs. However, if one looks at this series objectively then it becomes evident that the Cavs should definitely be considered clear favorites.

LeBron James, the 2009 NBA MVP, is the best individual player on either team. James is a two-way player who has eliminated every one of his skill set weaknesses—defense, free throw shooting, three point shooting--except for his midrange jump shot, which can still be erratic at times. It is a difficult task to keep James out of the paint and he is also a top notch rebounder and playmaker. Unless one team enjoys a marked superiority in overall talent/depth, the team with the best individual player is probably going to win a seven game series, because that player is capable of taking over a crucial game, particularly on the road. Orlando’s best player is Dwight Howard, who made the All-NBA First Team and won the Defensive Player of the Year award (James finished second). Howard is a dominant rebounder and shotblocker but he will neither overpower defenders on the block a la a young Shaquille O’Neal nor does he possess the nimble footwork and deft shooting touch of Hakeem Olajuwon. Therefore, Howard can be contained by a solid post defender who forces him to catch the ball outside of the paint; it is not necessary or desirable to double-team Howard unless/until he puts the ball on the floor and gets into the paint but Howard is not a great passer or ballhandler so if he is trapped on the move he can be forced into turning the ball over or taking a low percentage shot (which is just about anything other than a dunk in his case). The Cavs have the necessary frontcourt depth, savvy and discipline to employ such a strategy, which means that their perimeter defenders can stay at home on Orlando’s deadly three point shooters. Look for James to have a much more pronounced impact on this series than Howard does.

The Cavs enjoy homecourt advantage in this series and that is a very significant factor considering that the Cavs went 39-2 at home—and one of those losses came in the final regular season game, when the Cavs had already clinched homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs and their reserves still almost beat a Philadelphia team that was trying to win in order to possibly improve their playoff seeding. Orlando’s game seven victory in Boston is impressive but beating an injury-depleted Celtics team is not at all the same thing as beating a fully-loaded Cavs team with LeBron James leading the charge.

What about the head to head series, including that 29 point beatdown? You can throw the first regular season meeting out the window: the Magic still had All-Star point guard Jameer Nelson—who later suffered a season-ending injury—while the Cavs were without the services of injured starters Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Delonte West and had yet to reacquire Joe Smith, who currently ranks sixth on the team in playoff minutes. In the second meeting, both teams had their current rosters largely intact and the Cavs won at home, 97-93. The third meeting—easily Cleveland’s worse loss of the season in terms of point differential—is a little easier to understand in light of the fact that it was the second of back to back road games and the third game in four nights for the Cavs, while the Magic had the benefit of a day off after playing a home game. This is what is known in NBA circles as a “scheduling loss”—if you stumble into a tough arena for your third game in four nights it is very difficult to beat a good team. Cleveland Coach Mike Brown realized exactly what has happening in that game, which is why no Cav played more than 32 minutes.

The foundation for Cleveland’s success is built on defense, rebounding and LeBron James’ brilliance. The addition of All-Star point guard Mo Williams has established yet another firm building block in that foundation but while many people have talked about Williams’ importance I still don’t think that the general public—and even some so-called experts—fully appreciate just how deep this Cleveland team really is. Real experts—guys like former NBA coaches turned commentators Hubie Brown and Mike Fratello—have emphasized this point during telecasts of Cleveland’s playoff games: not only do the Cavs have a potent and versatile starting lineup but their bench is loaded with players who have been starters for playoff teams—either in Cleveland (Sasha Pavlovic, Daniel Gibson) or elsewhere (Ben Wallace, Joe Smith,Wally Szczerbiak)—yet those players understand and accept their current roles. The Magic cannot match the Cavs in terms of depth or playoff experience.

Game one on Wednesday night at the Q will revisit the classic “rest/rust” issue: will the Cavs be well rested after having so much time off between series or will they be rusty? The answer most likely will be “yes” on both counts; the Cavs may show some signs of rust—particularly in terms of shooting or their timing on certain plays—but veterans like Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Ben Wallace will benefit from the rest. By the second half at the latest any signs of “rust” will likely have disappeared and the Cavs should be in good position to take a 1-0 lead; I expect the Cavs to win this series in five games, six at the most.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:20 PM



At Monday, May 18, 2009 5:13:00 PM, Anonymous dmills said...


This is a bad match up for Cleveland. The Magic will zone off LeBron James and force him to beat them outside with Dwight shadowing him. It will come down to Mo Williams having to have a great series.

The problem for Cleveland again will be style. They play the Spurs defense and that style can be beaten by Orlando because of their very good ball movement on the perimeter.

If you have watched these NBA playoffs as carefully as I (and I know you have) then you know that just about every regular season trend has held true for this post season. Much more so then any in recent memory in my opinion. With that said the trend to watch is margins of victory in the games played between the Cavs and Magic. In the 2 magic victories Orlando beat Cleveland by an average of 20 PPG. In the one Cleveland victory the Magic actually were leading the game until the 30 seconds. It took a a last second 3 ball and a controversial call to give that game to the Cavs, otherwise it would have been a 3-0 sweep of the season series. It took an insane Lebron James performance to pull that game out with a little help from the Refs. That to me is a legitiment trend.

I wouldn't be shocked if the Magic beat Cleveland in 6 or 7. I would however be shocked if Orlando lost in less then 6 games.

At Monday, May 18, 2009 6:03:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I realize that a fair number of people think that this will be a tough matchup for Cleveland but I just don't see it that way. As I indicated, the first regular season game is meaningless because neither team had their current rotation intact. That average victory margin of 20 ppg that you cite is from a small sample size and includes a 29 point blowout when the Cavs were playing their third game in four nights. The 72-10 Bulls lost by 32 points to the Knicks in a regular season game and then beat the Knicks 4-1 in the playoffs. Regular season trends can be meaningful if they reveal matchup problems that will apply in the playoffs but you have to examine situations in detail to see whether or not this is the case. For instance, during the Jordan era the Cavs tended to do well against the Bulls in the regular season and then lose to them in the playoffs. One of the reasons for this is that in the playoffs the Bulls would put MJ or Pip on Mark Price in key situations, a tactic that they did not use in the regular season. I think that in the Cleveland-Orlando series the Cavs will have some different wrinkles in their coverage versus Howard and the three point shooters than they showed in the regular season and that at least part of this will consist of single-covering Howard, keeping him out of the paint and then trapping him once he puts the ball on the floor. You can't give a great player a steady diet of any one coverage but I think that this kind of coverage will be a factor.

Of the two meetings that took place with both teams having their current rotations, the Cavs won the only game when both teams had a reasonable amount of rest. The Cavs are a much better defensive team than the depleted Celtics are and the Cavs are also a better offensive team as well, so I just don't see this series being as competitive as some people expect.

At Monday, May 18, 2009 11:49:00 PM, Anonymous dmills said...


Good points all. Problem is that Mike Brown (much like his mentor Gregg Popavich) will be VERY reluctant to double down on Howard. That's just not part of his philosophy and even if they do try this strategy it's unlikely to affect Orlando much because they don't operate inside out, they operate outside in.

If you remember the battles between the Spurs and Lakers, San Antonio never doubled Shaq OR Kobe for that matter. They won or lost with their belief in man to man defense. Sure they will tinker with their defensive scheme a little but nothing that will be way out of the ordinary of what they normally do.

Cleveland on the other hand has some problems. For one, they are smaller on the perimeter then Orlando. You have James who will most likely start out on Hedo and then you've got Mo Williams or Delonte West to check Alston and Lee. After that your stuck with 6'7" Ben Wallace on Lewis or Varejao off the bench. Lewis is too tall for Wallace and too quick for both Wallace and Varejao. Either way Lewis will pull one of them out of the paint which will open up driving lanes and also allow Howard to go one on one with Big Z.

This is one of a few ways Orlando will confuse Clevelands funnel defense. I suspect that Cleveland will have to have a number of huge performances by LeBron James in order to beat Orlando.

We'll see how game one plays out and then I'll get back to you.

At Tuesday, May 19, 2009 12:21:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


As I indicated, I think that the Cavs will use a lot of single coverage on Howard and that if/when they do double him it will be on the dribble, not on the catch. It will be very important for the post defender to force Howard out of the paint to make the catch and it will also be important for the guards to put pressure on whoever is feeding the post.

Part of why the Spurs rarely double-teamed is that they had a post defender (Duncan) and a perimeter defender (Bowen) who did not need much, if any, help. I don't think that the Cavs will double a lot, so we largely agree on that point--we just disagree about how effectively the Cavs can single cover Howard and the Magic's perimeter players.

The Cavs are so good at rotating if someone gets beaten off of the dribble that it looks like the Cavs have six defensive players on the court. I just don't believe that Orlando is going to cause as many problems for Cleveland as some people think but, as you said, we'll watch game one and see what actually happens.

Something else that bears watching is that Orlando has been starting Redick, not Lee. I think that the Cavs will take advantage of this by isolating Delonte West versus Redick, either on the post or at the top of the key. There is no way that Redick can guard West and I think that if the Cavs isolate West successfully they could force Orlando to change the starting lineup and/or diminish Redick's minutes.

If it turns out that Cleveland needs several great performances from James to win this series I would not be at all surprised if he delivers such performances.

At Tuesday, May 19, 2009 10:19:00 AM, Anonymous dmills said...


Now that's were we absolutely agree! LeBron, like Kobe Bryant is a one man eraser. He can erase just about any match up advantage that any particular team has and he is absolutely capable of taking over the series if the need arises. It's up to Orlando not to let that happen.

One thing that I've noticed about James is that his play is based largely on his confidence. Kobe alluded to that when LA played Cleveland this season which is why Bryant demanded that he be put on James right from the start so that James couldn't get confident early. Kobe's plan worked to a T because he denied Lebron the ball and/or position all game and even pushed James out from the post which I found to be incredible! What Kobe also did that i've yet to see anyone else do with James is pressure him 92 ft when he is bringing the ball up the court and when Lebron did manage to get past Bryant, the Laker bigs rotated well enough to deny James one of his famous "monster dunks" that seem to ignite him and his team.

Now obviously Orlando doesn't have a single perimeter player as good as Bryant is on defense, but they do have players like Michael Pietrus who are similar to Kobe in size and athletism and can mimic what Bryant did to James. It's a strech I know but at least it's an option for Orlando. Also I don't know if Pietres is as physically strong as Bryant is, so that could also throw a monkey wrench into that game plan.

In any case they can't afford to let James get off early. If he starts off struggling then he is likely to continue to struggle all game.

At Tuesday, May 19, 2009 1:21:00 PM, Anonymous Mike Smrek (not really) said...

It'll be interestting to see if the Orlando shooters get open because Howard forces Cleveland to double team; as you said, Mike Brown might live with 40 points out of Howard, or just double on the dribble (when Howard has a harder time making the right pass).

When the Celtics single teamed Howard, Hedo could also draw double teams and free up 3pt shooters by driving past his man and drawing help defenders, but he can't get past LeBron. Maybe Lewis has to play that role; I'm not sure if distributes well.

Orlando is a 5-1 underdog. I think they have a better chance than that, maybe 3-2 or 2-1.

At Tuesday, May 19, 2009 3:39:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You are referring to the January meeting between the Lakers and Cavs. In my game recap--which can be found here: Bryant Overcomes Early Injury, Leads Lakers to 105-88 Victory Against Cleveland--I described how Kobe forced LeBron off of the post in the half court and leveled him off in transition, preventing him from getting to the hoop even in the open court. I didn't see any other game recap that mentioned those things, so you are either very observant or you read my recap!

Kobe is deceptively strong; in person he looks bigger than he does on TV but, more importantly, he has "basketball strength": he knows how to use his strength to create leverage on the basketball court, which is why he can effectively battle on the block even with players who are much bigger than he is, guys like LeBron and Artest. In this way, Kobe is similar to MJ, who also was deceptively strong.

Pietrus is a solid defender but he is not as strong or as crafty as Kobe.

At Tuesday, May 19, 2009 3:53:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Mike Smrek:

Naturally, my prediction is based on my belief that the Magic shooters will not consistently get open, nor will Howard do enough offensive damage to compensate for this. The difference between having LeBron guard Turkoglu and Pierce guard Turkoglu is also important. Turkoglu and Lewis were able to post up and/or drive into the paint versus Boston but I don't expect either player to be able to consistently do that versus Cleveland.

At Tuesday, May 19, 2009 8:04:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I disagree with the notion that doubling Howard is the way to go.

I can understand that doubling Howard will be an attractive option since he is not as good a passer as Shaq.
However Howard is nowhere near Shaq was at his prime.

The Spurs lost to those Lakers team because Shaq was at his absolute peak, and Kobe was already a top 5 player.

Perkins showed that if Howard cannot simply overpower his man, his offensive production can be contained with single coverage. Boston's problem was Perkins was their first, last, and only defender. Howard will not be overpowering Ben Wallace or the heavier Ilgauskas. Trying to overpower Varejao will cause even more problems as he'll earn a cheap charge or two.

Sure Howard grabbed a ton of offensive boards, but most of them came when Perkins had to help on the drive.

Howard did most of his damage during semi-transition early offense opportunities, which will be scarce against Cleveland.

Finally, offensive boards can generate open looks from 3, but the Cavs are a superior rebounding team to the Celtics. Orlando will have less open shots.


At Tuesday, May 19, 2009 10:23:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I have been saying for quite some time that the optimal strategy versus Orlando is to single cover Howard and stay at home on the shooters, provided that your team has a stout enough post defender; I only advocate doubling Howard sporadically, as a change of pace, and even then only on the dribble, because he is not a good ballhandler or passer, particularly on the move.


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