Even though the Orlando Magic have three All-Star-caliber players on their front line, their success in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers will largely depend on their point-guard play. Simply checking boxes for positional advantages--an admittedly oversimplified method of analysis--gives Orlando the edge at center and power forward, with Cleveland getting the nod at small forward and shooting guard. At point guard, the Cavs have Mo Williams, who made the All-Star team this year as an alternate, while the Magic have journeyman Rafer Alston. Certainly that's a check-mark in the Cavs' favor, right?
Not necessarily. Alston has played like an All-Star in his last 5 visits to Cleveland. That's not an exaggeration, at least not if you believe Williams' (17.8 points, 4.1 assists, 46.7% from the field) All-Star berth justified. Check out the per-game splits:
|@ Rest of League||12.1||37.3%||34.9%||80.1%||3.2||5.2||1.3||2.1|
Certainly some of the ancillary stats--particularly steals--may not seem as relevant due to the variety of point guards he has faced in Cleveland, but look at the shooting stats: the man shoots like Jameer Nelson at The Q... and like Sebastian Telfair everywhere else. That's telling. For whatever reason, he just shoots well there. Some players are like that, and I'm not exactly interested in exploring why Skip fares so well in Cleveland. In any event his elevated play there could prove to be the difference for Orlando in this series, especially against Williams' notoriously poor defense.
Consider that Alston is, by far, the Magic's worst perimeter shooter. Then consider that the Cavaliers will almost certainly have to double-team Dwight Howard on most possessions, since Ben Wallace, their only burly post defender, is a reserve. If the Cavs double Dwight, they will almost always send Alston's man at him. Rafer will indeed get his chances from long-range. And if Cleveland sends the double from someone else--most likely Courtney Lee or J.J. Redick--Howard can kick the ball out to Alston, who can make the swing pass to the open man. Howard doesn't average many assists, but I estimate he's a better passer than he gets credit for due to the "hockey assists" his kick-outs create.
Now I'm hardly the only person who thinks Skip might be the proverbial "X-Factor" in this series. Zach McCann was on the case yesterday. So while Celtics fans more-or-less cheered when Alston shot the ball in the last round, Cavaliers fans--if history holds up--will have an opposite reaction. And hey, maybe that's fine with them. They'd rather have Alston beat them than, say, Rashard Lewis or Hedo Turkoglu. But if the two forwards are warmed-up, and Howard is dealing damage in the paint, and Alston is on fire from distance? Good night, Cleveland.