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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Howard Dominates Overtime as Magic Win Pivotal Game Four Versus Cavalliers

Dwight Howard scored 10 of his team-high 27 points in overtime as the Orlando Magic posted a 116-114 victory to take a 3-1 lead over the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals. Howard led both teams in rebounds (14) and blocked shots (three) while also passing for four assists. Howard had two dunks and a layup in the first 2:13 of overtime and if the Cavs lose this series they will long rue not sending Howard--a .594 free throw shooter in the regular season who is shooting .638 in the playoffs--to the free throw line; it is highly unlikely that six points would have resulted from those free throws and therefore the Cavs would have been in a much better position to win this game, even the series at 2-2 and retake homecourt advantage. As Kobe Bryant likes to say, quoting Tex Winter, "Everything turns on a trifle."

The Cavs squandered another 40-plus point effort by LeBron James, the third time this series they have lost despite James exceeding that mark. James broke the record for most points in the first four games of a Conference Finals series (169), set the night before by Kobe Bryant (147). However, James must share part of the blame for this loss despite his gaudy stats (44 points, 12 rebounds, seven assists) because he committed eight turnovers--seven of them in the fourth quarter and overtime, including three in the final 4:17 of the extra session when every possession was obviously extremely important--and airballed a three pointer late in the overtime when he unsuccessfully tried to draw a foul. Of course, the Cavs would not have even made it to overtime without James' overall performance, including two clutch free throws that he calmly drained with just :00.5 remaining in regulation (though he did miss a free throw a minute earlier that could have put the Cavs up by two points at that juncture).

Delonte West (17 points, seven assists, five rebounds) played well but James simply has not been getting enough help in this series. Zydrunas Ilgauskas had a solid game (12 points, nine rebounds) and Anderson Varejao (nine points, five steals, two rebounds) played excellent defense before fouling out but a lot of the players who helped Cleveland post the best record in the NBA this season have not been heard from in this series. There is so much talk about Orlando's matchup advantages--generally referring to forwards Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis--but the matchup that is killing Cleveland should be heavily in their favor, at least on paper: All-Star Mo Williams versus midseason acquisition Rafer Alston, who has taken the place of injured All-Star Jameer Nelson. Although they are often crossmatched as opposed to going one on one, there is no way around the fact that the Cavs need for Williams to outperform Alston and that simply is not happening. Alston scored a playoff career-high 26 points--including 15 in the third quarter as the Magic erased Cleveland's eight point halftime lead--and he shot 10-17 from the field and 6-12 from three point range. Alston is averaging 14.8 ppg in this series while shooting .447 from the field and .435 from three point range. Williams scored 18 points but shot just 5-15 from the field and he is averaging 17.3 ppg on .324 field goal shooting (including a paltry .222 from three point range) versus Orlando.

Mo Williams' "guarantee" after the Cavs' game three loss that Cleveland would win the series is just a bunch of hot air. It is much more meaningful to "be about it" than to "talk about it" and, more to the point, there are only about five players in the NBA who actually have enough consistent impact that they could meaningfully guarantee that their team would win a given game--and Williams is obviously not one of those guys; he is a one-time All-Star who is experiencing his first extended playoff run and he has performed below expectations thus far, so his focus should be squarely on improving his own level of play, not making bold proclamations that he is not in any position to fulfill.

Lewis finished with 17 points, five rebounds and no assists, shooting 5-9 from the field, while Turkoglu had 15 points, eight assists and seven rebounds but he shot just 5-13 from the field. During this series, Lewis is averaging 19.3 ppg while shooting .556 from the field and .579 from three point range; Turkoglu is averaging 16.0 ppg while shooting .365 from the field and .417 from three point range, though he is hurting Cleveland with his floor game (8.3 apg, 6.3 rpg). Turkoglu is averaging fewer points than he did during the regular season (16.8 ppg) and shooting worse from the field (but better from three point range), while Lewis has bettered his regular season scoring average (17.7 ppg) while significantly increasing his shooting percentages.

The Cavs have been nominally assigning James to guard Alston but primarily have used James as a rover, much like the Lakers assigned Bryant to Rajon Rondo in the 2008 Finals so that Bryant could take advantage of his skills as a help defender. The problem for Cleveland is that Alston is making the Cavs pay for leaving him open and no Cleveland defender really has taken the measure of Lewis. The Cavs should go to a normal rotation with James guarding Lewis and Williams guarding Alston (West has done a solid job versus Turkoglu, who is accumulating assists not through any fault of West's but because the Cavs are leaving shooters open and Turkoglu is finding them). Also, the Cavs should double-team Howard as little as possible, forcing him to score one on one (or go to the free throw line, depending on the time/score situation and who is guarding him). I still don't believe that Howard can consistently go out and get 35-40 points versus single coverage and there is also some question about how much the Magic would feed him the ball in that situation, because their perimeter players (other than Turkoglu) do not really have a playmaking mentality. When Phil Jackson's Chicago Bulls faced Shaquille O'Neal during a similar stage of O'Neal's career--when he was a young center with the Magic--Jackson would often single cover O'Neal with Luc Longley, Bill Wennington or even Dennis Rodman, none of whom had any better chance of stopping O'Neal than Zydrunas Ilgauskas or Anderson Varejao have of stopping Howard. Jackson's idea was to force O'Neal to shoulder the scoring burden early in the game, so perhaps he would tire out down the stretch and then his teammates would not be able to step up because they would not have shot the ball that often. Howard's low post game is not as good as O'Neal's was back then and I think that this approach would work for Cleveland. The Cavs defended the three point line very well during the regular season; the problem in this series is not that they cannot keep up with Orlando's three point shooters but rather that they have chosen to go with crossmatches and switches that are resulting in wide open looks that would not be so plentiful if they played more straight up defense.

You will surely hear many people proclaiming that the Cavs are just one exceptional shot by LeBron James away from being swept--but it is equally true that the Cavs led by two points with fewer than 25 seconds remaining in game one and they led by one point with four seconds remaining in regulation in game four only to see Rashard Lewis hit two clutch three point shots, the first one winning game one and the second one ultimately forcing overtime in game four. Despite the matchup advantages that everyone says favor the Magic, the Cavs have enjoyed the lead for a substantial portion of this series; unfortunately for them, they have not led at the right times, much like the old quip that if the race were the Indianapolis 400 then Mario Andretti would have been a multiple winner at the Brickyard. The Cavs have simply executed very poorly in late game situations, most notably when Anderson Varejao did not crowd Lewis with the Cavs up by two points in the waning moments of game one and also when Varejao failed to foul Howard in the overtime of game four (Varejeo may have been concerned about fouling out--which he ultimately did anyway--but the Cavs simply cannot continue to allow Howard to dunk the ball so frequently).

Don't get me wrong: Orlando is a good team that certainly poses matchup challenges for any opponent but the Cavs also present some matchup difficulties, namely James and also the team's collective ability to score in the paint (West is a deceptively good post scorer and Varejao does an excellent job of diving to the hoop from the weakside). As TNT's Doug Collins noted during the telecast, game four boiled down to a contest between Cleveland's paint scoring advantage (50-36) and Orlando's three point shooting advantage; the Magic set a franchise playoff record by making 17 treys and they shot a blistering .447 from behind the arc, while the Cavs were just 6-22 (.273). That works out to a 33 point advantage for Orlando and yet the Magic only won by two points in overtime. The Cavs outrebounded Orlando 40-38--continuing a series-long trend despite Howard's impressive individual rebounding totals--and they forced 15 turnovers.

Of course, all of this analysis does not change the stark, brutal reality facing the Cavaliers: in order to advance to the NBA Finals they must win three straight games against a very good Orlando team that has enjoyed recent success against them and thus plays with great confidence against Cleveland. Only eight teams have ever come back from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA playoffs but that is partially because the team with the 3-1 lead usually enjoys homecourt advantage and is clearly the superior team; in this series all of the games have been competitive--three of them exceptionally so--and the Cavs have the opportunity to potentially play two of the final three games at home if they keep winning. The Cavs bounced back from a 2-0 deficit against the playoff-tested Detroit Pistons to force a seventh game in the 2006 playoffs and the next year they turned around a 2-0 deficit against those same Pistons by winning four straight games. Regardless of what eventually happens in this series, I don't buy the prepackaged storyline that Cleveland simply does not match up with Orlando; as noted above, if you take away two Lewis three pointers then the Cavs have a 3-1 lead and are heading home to presumably wrap up the series in five games. A team that has a decided matchup advantage does not have to rely on such a razor thin margin of victory (a better example of what happens when a team really has decisive mismatch advantages is the way that the Cavs swept through the first two rounds of the playoffs). These teams have turned out to be more closely matched than I expected but the real story is not so much Orlando's offensive production but rather Cleveland's poor shooting/Orlando's excellent defense (depending on who you want to credit/blame).

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:45 AM

9 comments

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9 Comments:

At Wednesday, May 27, 2009 1:08:00 PM, Blogger Don said...

David --

Nice post. I think you're right to say that the main story of this series is how little offensive help James has been getting. To my eye, this doesn't look to be the result of great defense -- Mo Williams et al seem to be missing lots of open, in-rhythm shots. (Do you see it differently?)

That said, I was surprised, especially last night, at the number of open threes the Magic were getting. At times, I thought I was watching the Wizards' defense, not the Cavs'. Over the course of the whole series, the numbers don't really show the Magic to be consistently killing Cleveland with the 3 -- ESPN shows them to be shooting .381 for the series (lower than Cleveland, at .393). Still, I think you're dead on in saying that the Cavs simply must stop doubling Howard and also get back to a normal rotation defense, rather than sloughing off Alston. You just can't give a jump-shooting team -- especially one that's brimming with confidence -- that many open looks.

Do you think it was a mistake for Brown to play James the entire second half? I certainly understand why a coach wouldn't want to rest him in that situation, and hindsight's 20/20. But even before OT, he seemed completely gassed -- or at least I'm attributing his late-game turnovers (which were *atrocious* and uncharacteristic) and a couple of questionable perimeter shots to fatigue. What do you think?

 
At Wednesday, May 27, 2009 5:00:00 PM, Anonymous Happiness said...

Howard turned in on in OT but more importantly Skip turned it on out of half-time. Without his shooting this game could have gotten out of hand.

The Cavs have to form a mini-sweep of their own. I look for them to come out fired up and win by 10 - 15 this Thursday. From there they have to go 2-0, which they should be able to do if they're the best team in the league.

Forget thinking ahead and take it one game at a time.

 
At Wednesday, May 27, 2009 8:18:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

great analysis!

I really dislike the whole "roamer defense" strategy. It is not mentioned often enough, but by leaving Rondo, the Lakers allowed him to accumulate rebounds and ignite the break. Even if he was a reluctant scorer, I absolutely believe that the Lakers would have been better off if they had put Kobe on Pierce. The "strategy" is even more ridiculous considering that Alston is anything but gun-shy, and unlike Ron Artest, he actually makes shots.

Why does the best defense in the league change their defensive strategy? Same as with Dallas a few years back. As the superior team, make the other team adjust to you. It would have been smart to let Dirk go basket for basket vs Baron, as it would be smart to let LeBron go basket for basket vs Howard.

I also think that while LeBron did improve his 3pt%, his decision to pull the trigger is as bad as it has ever been. I am no statistician but I am almost sure that a LeBron pullup 3 off the dribble is his worst shot.

Sure his "clutch" 3 won a game for them, but if he didn't take and miss 7 of them before he wouldn't need that shot which was more luck than anything.
A barrage of threes while Howard was at 5 fouls is inexcusable.

Z

 
At Thursday, May 28, 2009 10:34:00 AM, Anonymous yogi said...

I think you have to give some credit to the Orlando ball movement - they are seriously looking for the open shooter or the best shot every time down the court - their rapid and unselfish ball movement is killing the cavs, along with consistently good spacing.

 
At Thursday, May 28, 2009 2:10:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Don:

I agree that Williams is missing shots that he normally makes.

The Magic are getting open shots because the Cavs are double-teaming Howard.

The way that the other Cavs are playing, Brown has no choice but to keep LeBron on the court in order to have any chance to win.

 
At Thursday, May 28, 2009 2:12:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Z:

Your comparison with Dallas--which changed its starting lineup prior to a first round loss to Golden State--is interesting. I agree that the Cavs should not have changed their fundamental defensive approach.

Despite LeBron's good field goal percentage overall there is no question that his shot selection still needs some improvement.

 
At Thursday, May 28, 2009 2:13:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Yogi:

Of course Orlando deserves credit and I have been very impressed with their ball movement but if the Cavs would use single coverage more often on Howard and stay at home on the shooters then they could better contest those passes and shots.

 
At Thursday, May 28, 2009 9:47:00 PM, Blogger The Dude Abides said...

I should point out that in the Lakers-Celtics finals last season, Kobe wasn't put on Rondo until Game 3. Prior to that, he guarded Allen while Fisher guarded Rondo. IMO, this was a tactical mistake by Phil Jackson. The Celtics won both Games 1 and 2 fairly easily, while the teams split the four games in which Kobe "guarded" Rondo, with Boston quite fortunate to win Game 4 when Fisher inexplicably sat on the bench for the bulk of Boston's comeback, while Farmar played scared. The Eastern Conference teams sloughed off Rondo the entire playoffs because of their greater familiarity with the Celtics.

 
At Friday, May 29, 2009 10:20:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

The Dude Abides:

The strategy of using Kobe as a "roamer" versus Rondo was more effective than the strategy of using LeBron as a "roamer" versus Alston for at least two reasons: (1) Alston is a better spot up shooter than Rondo and thus better equipped to make a team pay for leaving him open; (2) Kobe is more experienced at being a "roamer" than LeBron is and has a better idea of where he should be and what he should do. Doc Rivers called Kobe the best help defender since Scottie Pippen. Coach Brown has acknowledged that the Cavs missed several assignments versus Alston in game four, though he did not specify whether LeBron or someone else missed those assignments.

 

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