In an ugly game marred by poor shooting on both sides, 58 personal fouls, and 86 free throw attempts, the Orlando Magic defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers, 99-89, to claim a 2-1 advantage in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Magic withstood another herculean effort by league MVP LeBron James, who finished with 41 points, 7 boards, and 9 assists. It was a shame that their own franchise player, Dwight Howard, was saddled with foul trouble the entire game and managed to play only 28 minutes before fouling out. He led the Magic with 24 points, and one wonders--given the ease with which he scored against the Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Anderson Varejao--if he and James could have wound up engaging in a classic, high-scoring duel with one another had Howard been allowed to stay in the game.
|Team||Pace||Efficiency||eFG%||FT Rate||OReb%||TO Rate|
As has been the case throughout this series, the Cavaliers simply did not provide sufficient support for James: Mo Williams and Delonte West were the only other Cavs who scored in double-figures, with 15 points (5-of-16 from the field) and 12 points (5-of-11), respectively. Ilgauskas, Varejao, and Ben Wallace were adequate on the glass, but they did not provide enough offensively to keep Cleveland in the game. And the lack of production from the other Cavaliers has proven to be their undoing in this series, as the Magic have been able to get solid contributions from almost everyone else across the board:
Hedo Turkoglu did a bit of everything except make shots, as he went 1-of-11 from the field. Still, he led the Magic with 10 rebounds and 7 assists, and his foul-drawing ability put the Cavs in the penalty early and often;
Mickael Pietrus scored 16 points off the bench, adding 6 rebounds--including a crucial offensive rebound with the Magic up just6 and 1:08 to play-- and 2 steals for good measure;
Rashard Lewis scored 15 points on 5-of-8 shooting, including 2-of-4 from three-point range;
Marcin Gortat was not the offensive force Howard was, but played excellent defense in relief of Howard, helping the Magic essentially tread water--they were outscored by 2 points with him in the floor--as Howard dealt with foul trouble;
and Rafer Alston gave the Magic's offense a lift early, with 11 of his 18 points in the first quarter, shooting 5-of-6. He missed 6 of his last 7 shots for the game, but his assertiveness on the offensive end helped the Magic hold a 7-point lead at the end of the first period.
I expect the Magic's depth, as well as the officiating, to be the main talking points about this game tomorrow. The former point is encouraging, but the latter point is distressing. I don't like to discuss the officiating here, or anywhere, and it's quite honestly a shame that the first things anyone wants to talk about regarding this game are the three men who are supposed to be more-or-less invisible. It's not just the fans. Here's how Cavs coach Mike Brown started his post-game press conference:
"It will be interesting to go back and look at the tape and look at the fouls. You know, to send them to the free-throw line 51 times is a lot."
True, Brown did not explicitly blame the officials for the Magic's parade to the foul line, later saying "we have to be careful defensively when we do it [foul] out on the floor." But when the first topic of conversation after an NBA playoff game of this magnitude is officiating, and not the performances of the teams on the floor, it's a sign that something is wrong. And when what had been a rowdy, raucous, incredible home crowd before the game is essentially a non-factor during it despite the home team's leading for much of the way, it's a sign that something is wrong. There should have been, and could have been, much more to cheer for tonight were the game called a bit more loosely, on both sides. I say this not because Howard picked up his 6th foul on what appeared to be a clean rejection of a James three-point attempt, but also because all the Cavs' big men picked up touch fouls trying to trap Magic ballhandlers, and Turkoglu in particular, on the pick-and-roll 20+ feet away from the basket.
But back to the game. Neither team played particularly well--although, as Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said afterward, "both teams fought extremely hard"--but then again, that might have something to do with neither team being able to get into a rhythm. Cleveland shot 37.2% from the floor and 19.2% from three-point range, while the Magic shot 42.9% and 35.3%, respectively. So did both teams just play great defense? Not according to the coaches. Here's Van Gundy:
"I thought our defense was better. I will know more after I watch the film. But they also missed some good looks [....] And there is a bit of a caveat to the defense, too, because when you take one guy [James] and put him on the line 24 times, it is hard to say that your defense is great."
... and Brown:
"[...] I think some of our looks throughout the flow of the game or the meat of the game were pretty good, were pretty good looks. If we're stepping into some wide-open looks, then hey, I'm going to live with that, because we have good shooters."
It's safe to assume that coach Brown considers Williams, at 46.7% this season, a good shooter. But in three regular-season games against Orlando, he shot 38.1%, his worst showing against any Eastern Conference opponent. Further, he's at 32.1% in this series, suggesting his poor shooting is not a fluke. To what does he attribute it? Pressure from a combination of sources, namely the Magic's aggressive closeouts and his own desire to lighten James' scoring load:
"Today I knocked a few [shots] down. But I get--I doubled over for a second, I see a guy running at me full speed. At the same time you got to give them credit. Sometimes they made me rush my shot. Sometimes I feel like I need to, you know, get a big bucket, take some pressure off Bron, you know."
If any Magic players feel similarly pressured to help Howard, they aren't showing it. Tonight, none of them forced the action offensively. An example: when Lewis drained a deep three-pointer to give the Magic a 75-66 lead with 8:33 to play, he looked completely calm. It speaks to the resiliency of this team, which has faced adversity in several forms throughout the season, that a key player can cold-bloodedly hit such a huge shot and not bat an eye. There's no pressure on the Magic, who are--to use a common expression in these playoffs--"playing with house money" in these Conference Finals. No one expected them to get this far, especially not without Jameer Nelson, their second-best player and best leader.
...just don't tell Williams that:
"We giving these guys too much respect. They are a good basketball team, but so are we."
The Magic are happy with the win, but they can't stop here. As Rashard Lewis said after the game, the Philadelphia 76ers took a 2-1 lead on the Magic in the first round, but didn't win a single game the rest of the way. Dwight Howard believes he knows how his team can extend its series lead:
"All we got to do is come out and play Magic basketball. We run, move the ball and defend. Like I have been telling you guys, we can beat anybody. And those are going to be the three things. Run, move the ball, and play defense."
We'll see how they do this Tuesday in Game 4.