Dominant Howard Ends Cleveland's Dream Season, Lifts Orlando into the NBA FinalsDwight Howard had the best game of his young playoff career and as a result his Orlando Magic defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers 103-90, winning the Eastern Conference Finals four games to two. Howard scored a playoff career-high 40 points, shooting 14-21 from the field and 12-16 from the free throw line, and he also had a game-high 14 rebounds. Howard even dished off for four assists and although he only had one blocked shot he stayed out of foul trouble while still being a major defensive presence in the paint. The Magic shot 12-29 (.414) from three point range, with Rashard Lewis (18 points, 3-7 shooting from three point range), Mickael Pietrus (14 points, 4-7 shooting from three point range), Rafer Alston (13 points, 3-7 shooting from three point range) and Hedo Turkoglu (10 points, 2-6 shooting from three point range) leading the long range barrage. This was truly a case of the Cavs suffering from the worst of both worlds, because they neither contained Howard nor did they corral the Magic's many marksmen. As TNT's Kenny Smith said after the game, the Cavs were frequently caught in "no man's land" defensively, not really doubling Howard aggressively but straying too far away from the perimeter players to contest their shots.
LeBron James posted his worst performance of the series, "worst" being a relative term because 25 points, seven rebounds and seven assists while shooting 8-20 from the field would be a very good game for just about anyone else--but James averaged 38.5 ppg, 8.3 rpg and 8.0 apg in this series, so his game six numbers are indeed subpar by his lofty standards. James just did not seem to have his usual explosiveness, often settling for jump shots (he shot 2-8 from three point range). Delonte West added a playoff career-high 22 points on 9-19 field goal shooting, battling for 46 minutes despite the painful hip pointer that he suffered in game five. Mo Williams finished with 17 points on 6-12 field goal shooting but those numbers are very deceptive because he only had three points on 1-5 shooting in the first half as the Cavs fell behind 58-40. Anderson Varejao got into early foul trouble but still contributed 14 points and a team-high eight rebounds. No other Cav scored more than four points.
Since Orlando won 4-2 and cruised to victory in game six, revisionist history will ignore what actually took place in those six games and instead emphasize the popular pre-series topic of the numerous matchup problems that the Magic posed for the Cavaliers. There is no denying that the Magic present some challenging matchups but that is true of any team that advances this far in the NBA playoffs. Howard obviously had a decisive impact in game six and during the series he averaged 25.8 ppg and 13.0 rpg while shooting .651 from the field. Rashard Lewis exceeded his regular season scoring average and field goal percentage in addition to hitting two clutch three pointers, the first of which won game one and the second of which helped to force overtime in game four, enabling the Magic to eventually take a commanding 3-1 series lead. Hedo Turkoglu did not put up jaw dropping shooting numbers in this series but he used his playmaking skills to find open shooters as the Cavs scrambled defensively on the perimeter. Still, one glance at James' numbers in this series shows pretty clearly that he represened the single biggest "matchup problem" for either team; if Cleveland's other players had just performed slightly below their normal levels--as opposed to significantly worse than they played in the regular season--then the Cavs would have won this series despite the efforts of Howard, Lewis and Turkoglu.
Game six was a disaster for Cleveland but that should not obscure the truth that this was a tightly contested series featuring three games that were decided with the ball in the air as the final buzzer sounded--and that simply would not have been the case if Orlando really enjoyed decisive matchup advantages, nor would the Cavs have been able to build double digit leads in several games if they were as thoroughly outmatched as some people suggest: take away the two Lewis three pointers referenced above and the Cavs could have won this series in five games. I don't mean to suggest that the "wrong" team won, nor am I trying to justify my incorrect prediction that Cleveland would defeat Orlando. Rather, I am simply pointing out that the sky is not falling in Cleveland and that it is wrong to declare that the Cavs are a one man team, something that has become fashionable to say in the past week or so. The Cavaliers posted the best regular season record in the NBA in 2008-09 (66-16), leading the league in defensive points per game (91.4) and scoring differential (8.9) while tying the Celtics for first in defensive field goal percentage (.431) and ranking third in rebounding differential (3.3)--and you cannot accomplish those things without having a deep, talented team.
The story of the Eastern Conference Finals, from Cleveland's perspective, is twofold: (1) several players who performed at a high level during the regular season and in the first two rounds of the playoffs did not play well versus Orlando; (2) the Cavs regularly built big early leads only to squander them quickly and then execute poorly down the stretch once the score became close and either team had the opportunity to win. During the offseason, the Cavs' brain trust must figure out why so many players simultaneously regressed during this series and why a team that typically executed very well during the season repeatedly executed very poorly in critical late game situations. To put it bluntly, anyone who is either calling for Coach Mike Brown's head or suggesting that James' entire supporting cast must be replaced is an idiot: Brown's strategies have transformed the Cavs into one of the league's best defensive teams and have already resulted in one NBA Finals appearance and two trips to the Eastern Conference Finals in four years. Brown has won at least 50 regular season games in three of those seasons and his career playoff record of 36-24 is outstanding.
LeBron James did not shake hands with the Magic players after the game, which obviously is a departure from normal protocol; Isiah Thomas and the Bad Boys Pistons are still remembered--and not fondly--for snubbing the Chicago Bulls in a similar fashion after losing to the Bulls in the 1991 playoffs and Thomas later said that what he did was wrong and he told his son not to follow that example. It will be interesting to see if James eventually apologizes for this and it will also be interesting to see what kind of spin the national media puts on James' actions.
James compounded his hasty departure from the court by leaving the arena without speaking to the media. James has not made many missteps in his public life but that is a low rent move out of the Brett Favre-Kevin Garnett school: those are guys who are glad to speak with the media when things are going well or when getting their message out to the public suits their purposes but when things are going rough or their team loses then they are nowhere to be found; that is not an example that James should seek to emulate. James' former teammate Eric Snow, currently a commentator on NBA TV, called James' disappearing act "unfortunate" and said that part of being a leader is doing the "hard things" such as swallowing your personal disappointment and speaking with the media after your team has been eliminated. Instead, James hid from the scrutiny, leaving it up to his teammates to take the heat not only for the loss but also to explain how James is feeling. Mo Williams did a good job of deflecting a question about James and instead speaking about the disappointment that all of the Cavs feel--but as the team leader it is James' responsibility to deliver that message in person in his own words. As NBA TV's Rick Kamla noted, Kobe Bryant--who obviously is one of the fiercest competitors in the world--faced the media right after the Lakers got blown out by 39 points in a game six elimination contest in last year's NBA Finals; James should have followed Bryant's lead in that regard. Also, Julius Erving suffered some heartbreaking losses before he won an NBA championship but the one thing he never lost was his class and dignity; he always congratulated his opponents and he always went well beyond the call of duty with the media.
The Magic flew under the radar for most of this season: first the defending champion Celtics stormed out of the gate by going 27-2, then the Lakers took center stage by sweeping their regular season engagements with the Celtics and the Cavs and down the stretch the Cavs moved to the forefront by claiming homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Magic cruised steadily along right behind those teams but were dismissed by most observers after All-Star point guard Jameer Nelson suffered a season-ending shoulder injury; Orlando responded by acquiring Rafer Alston from the Houston Rockets in exchange for Brian Cook. The Magic inserted Alston in the starting lineup and hardly missed a beat. The Rockets are of course well known for their heavy reliance on "advanced basketball statistics", so it is more than a little ironic that the Magic obtained from Houston the starting point guard in the NBA Finals while only giving up a little used journeyman forward.
There has been a lot of talk about the basketball statistics revolution, but Orlando Magic Senior Vice President Pat Williams recently told me, "There is certainly nothing wrong with advanced science but I am still a firm believer in judging horseflesh, you know? Dollar Sign on the Muscle, the old baseball scouting book. You've got to line guys up, you've got to evaluate, you need tons of experience from doing it for many years. You have to go into the gym and you have to study the product. Given a choice of the modern way or the old fashioned way, David, I'll go with the old fashioned way." Williams said that the Magic do not rely on advanced basketball metrics when they make player evaluations. Indeed, I recall that after the Magic signed a $118 million dollar contract with Rashard Lewis many "stat gurus" said that this was a classic example of a team vastly overpaying a player. I also thought at that time that the Magic paid Lewis more than he is worth but--unlike the "stat gurus"--I understand how the NBA business actually works and I made the point that sometimes if you are trying to win you have to "overpay" to obtain the player you want to get; otherwise, you end up holding a pile of cash but not making your team any better. There are a finite number of players available at any given time and if even one other team is willing to "overpay" to get the guy who you want then you either have to "overpay" or else end up with nothing. The Magic were not able to obtain a traditional, muscle-bound, enforcer power forward to pair with Howard, so they decided to build their team in the mold of the 1995 Houston Rockets and surround their superstar big man with three point shooters plus a versatile swingman who can shoot, rebound, defend and be a playmaker (Houston had Clyde Drexler in that role, while the Magic have Hedo Turkoglu).
Howard is averaging nearly 16 rpg during the playoffs; no other Orlando player is averaging even 6 rpg and collectively the Magic have been outrebounded slightly by their opponents--but they more than make up for that by taking care of the ball, shooting an excellent percentage from three point range while attempting a large number of treys and feeding the ball into Howard, who is shooting better than .600 from the field in the postseason. The big difference between the Magic and other teams that have tried to win by playing at a fast tempo while shooting tons of threes is that the Magic play outstanding defense, anchored in the paint by Howard, the Defensive Player of the Year.
posted by David Friedman @ 1:03 AM