There's a lot of words that can describe the Orlando Magic's performance in a 102-93 loss against the Cleveland Cavaliers, in front of a nationally-televised audience and a sell-out crowd. Embarrassing is the first one to come to mind. Do not let the final score fool you because this game was over as soon as the Cavs stepped on the court to begin the game at the Amway Arena. The Magic couldn't afford to play a lackadaisical game, especially against a team that was prepared and rested after having four days off. But that's what happened from the opening tip, as Orlando seemed to sleepwalk against Cleveland. It was clear, whether you were watching in person or on the television, that the energy levels between the two squads were drastically different. It started with Mo Williams for the Cavaliers, who had an excellent game, finishing with 28 points (12-20 FG, 4-5 3PT) and 6 assists. In the first half, Williams was unconscious, hitting all his field goals (9) without missing - including four three-pointers. Vince Carter and Jameer Nelson led the way for the Magic, with 29 points (11-23 FG) and 19 points (8-15 FG), respectively.
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As I stated in my chat with John Krolik at Cavs: The Blog yesterday, I predicted that Cleveland would win I suspected that Orlando would utilize the pick & roll a lot to offset the fact that it's greatest advantage - the stretch four (Rashard Lewis and Ryan Anderson) - wouldn't be available to be used against Cleveland. As such, in the first quarter, the Cavaliers experienced a heavy dose of pick & rolls (1/5 with Nelson and Howard, 2/5 with Carter and Howard). Early on, things were clicking - Nelson and Carter were able to hit a few jumpers. But early foul trouble on Dwight Howard hurt the Magic's ability to do damage in the interior. As good of a pick & roll player as Marcin Gortat is, he isn't as much of a threat offensively. That allowed the Cavaliers the ability to tighten the screws against the guards in the pick & roll during the period. However, even with that being the case, Orlando didn't have too much trouble scoring on Cleveland. Carter had 10 points in the quarter, Nelson had 11. The issue, as has been a recurring theme so far in the regular season, was the Magic's defense.
It was poor.
The aforementioned Williams got things going for the Cavaliers early, no thanks to bad defense on the part of Nelson. Utilizing the pick & roll for example, Williams was able to get his shot going early and couldn't miss from the perimeter because Nelson wasn't quick enough to close out (sound familiar?). Everything Williams put up, went in. The defensive problems were compounded with LeBron James getting off to a quick start himself, scoring 13 points in the quarter in a variety of manners - dunks, lay-ups, jumpshots, and more. In the past, Orlando has been able to deal with LeBron doing whatever he pleases on offense, but with the emergence of Williams as the second scorer, that spelled trouble.
Early in the second quarter, Howard picked up his third foul but with the deficit at 11, Van Gundy elected to keep him in the game and play alongside Gortat (Van Gundy stated in the presser that he wished he could have played Matt Barnes during that stretch, instead, to spread the floor offensively but he couldn't do it with O'Neal in the game). The rationale behind this decision was that the Magic needed another player that could defend and rebound, plus it allowed Howard to play off the ball (in this case, against Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Anderson Varejao) and not be in risk of picking up his fourth foul. The gamble paid off, as Howard was able to stay on the court and do some damage against Shaquille O'Neal on offense. On one possession, Howard was able to draw a foul on O'Neal, fairly quickly, in the post. On another possession, Howard was able to put a spin move on O'Neal and make a lefty hook. All in all, Howard wasn't having too much difficulty engaging himself on the offensive end against O'Neal. Once again, offense wasn't a problem for Orlando.
Williams continued to play like a man possessed and made five field goals in the period, including three three-pointers, that allowed the Cavs to keep its distance on the scoreboard against the Magic.
Defensively, Orlando was poor against everything imaginable - fast breaks, pick & rolls, post-ups, and more. It wasn't pretty and Cleveland wasn't shy to exploit the deficiencies, especially against a team that hasn't been quick in its defensive rotations like the Magic this year.
Yet Orlando was still in striking distance late in the second quarter before a myriad of gaffes sealed the team's fate in the win-loss column.
After Carter made a jump shot to make the score 49-57 in favor of the Cavaliers, James was able to draw a foul on Barnes and hit both of his free throws to stretch the lead back to 10. On the ensuing possession, the Cavs surprised the Magic by switching to a full-court press. Something Orlando handles poorly. As such, Anthony Parker was able to steal the inbound pass and eventually James drew another foul. James made the first free throw attempt and clanged the second one, but J.J. Hickson was able to retrieve the miss on a hustle play and induce another foul on Mickael Pietrus as both players battled for the loose ball. Hickson made both free throws and the lead for Cleveland was now 13. A couple of possessions later, James was able to make a three to increase the lead to 16 and that was that. Instead of the Magic possibly heading into the locker room with a manageable single-digit deficit with another half to go, the game was effectively out of reach due to numerous mental errors.
The remainder of the contest seemed like a blur because the damage was done.
One play that seemed to summarize the night occurred late in the third quarter when Brandon Bass was able to pick off an outlet pass but proceed to miss the layup in transition. Nothing went right for Orlando.
The bench, aside from Gortat, was non-existant when the game mattered. The final box score may state that J.J. Redick had 10 points but they were meaningless buckets. Pietrus' body and mind didn't seem to be on the same book, let alone page, as he played - to be frank - dumb basketball the entire night. For whatever reason, Pietrus was passive on the offensive side of the ball, passing up numerous shots and putting the offense in a bind due to his indecision. Jason Williams didn't make an impact, whatsoever.
And rare as it may be, Van Gundy was out-coached and readily admitted that he could have done better following the loss. Everyone was out of sync for the Magic, whether it was the coaches or the players.
So, I'm sure everyone wants to know what exactly does the game mean for the Orlando Magic.
- VInce Carter played well on offense, whether he was matched up against Jamario Moon or Anthony Parker. Granted, Delonte West did not play.
- The pick & roll was effective against Shaquille O'Neal and could have been better had Dwight Howard stayed out of foul trouble.
- O'Neal's impact was minimal, aside from putting Howard in aforementioned foul trouble.
- Mo Williams scored on Jameer Nelson, which is a problem, because the Magic defeated the Cavaliers in the playoffs last year by neutralizing everyone not named LeBron James. It's one game but the next time Orlando faces off against Cleveland, Nelson needs to do a better job on the defensive end against Williams.
- The bench, aside from Marcin Gortat, didn't play well.
The Magic's problems are fixable because the majority of them reside on D. Whether or not they'll be fixed is a different story. One has to assume Orlando will improve, defensively, over time with more games and practices. Likewise, perhaps the team will be refocused on the defensive end and the players will have a defense-first mentality from now on. That's what got them to the NBA Finals this past season and the Magic need to rediscover that mojo (starting with Howard and Nelson). In my opinion, I think Orlando's flawless pre-season has turned out to be fool's good, in the sense that the team has been lulled into an offense-first mentality that Stan wants his players to break out of.
Offensively, the Magic sputtered a bit in the second half but that was partly due to tired legs, given that the team was playing on a back-to-back. Also, two of Orlando's biggest offensive weapons, Ryan Anderson and Rashard Lewis, were absent from the game so one has to figure they'll make a difference the next time these two squads face off against each other (assuming they're healthy). It should be blatantly obvious by now how valuable Lewis is to the Magic, especially in a game against the Cavaliers, where his ability to stretch the floor on offense can cause 'em a ton of problems and was sorely missed. And perhaps Lewis can help spark his teammates, defensively, when he makes his return next Monday.
All in all, chalk it up as a loss and move on.
Hats off to the Cleveland Cavaliers for playing an excellent game.