Howard Dominates Overtime as Magic Win Pivotal Game Four Versus CavalliersDwight 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).
posted by David Friedman @ 8:45 AM