Led by Dwight Howard's 27 points--10 of them in overtime--and Rafer Alston's career-playoff-high 26 points, the Orlando Magic surged past the Cleveland Cavaliers in overtime, 116-114, to take a 3-1 series lead in the Eastern Conference Finals. Orlando trailed by 8 at halftime, yet Alston's 15-point third quarter helped Orlando draw to within 1 heading into the final period of regulation. The Magic weathered another onslaught by LeBron James, who led his team with 44 points, 12 boards, and 7 assists. His pair of free throws with 0.5 seconds remaining sent the game to overtime knotted at 100.
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I know the Cavaliers are upset to be down 3-1, but they should at least take solace in the fact that they forced the Magic to overtime, on the road, despite yielding a whopping 17 made three-pointers. On the other hand, there's really no excusing how wide-open they left the Magic on a lot of those threes. I suppose they can live with some of Alston's looks because he is the Magic's poorest outside shooter in the rotation, historically speaking, but they consistently left Mickael Pietrus open in the corners, his favorite places to shoot. Cleveland dared Alston to win the game for Orlando, and he delivered more often than not. 26 points on 10-of-17 from the field and 6-of-12 from three-point range. Taking what the defense gave him, which is to say taking a lot. Stellar play from Orlando's deadline-day acquisition.
And this is how Orlando wins games. Simply too many weapons for the Cavs to match. Alston, we've mentioned. Howard, we've mentioned. Pietrus scored 17 off the bench, making 5 three-pointers. Rashard Lewis scored 10 of his 17 points in the 4th period, including what would have been the game-winning three-pointer were it not for James' late free throws. Hedo Turkoglu had 15 points and 8 assists. The Magic look every bit like the better team in this series, having pushed the league's winningest team to the brink of elimination, and nearly having swept it.
None of this is meant to gloat. I agree with Dwight Howard when he says, "It is no time to celebrate."
Howard, though, should absolutely be proud of his performance, particularly when it happened most. He might have silenced the critics who said during the Magic's previous series against the Boston Celtics that he could not be a go-to player. The Cavs do not have anyone capable of pushing him off his spots, and it showed on the Magic's second, third, and fourth possessions of the overtime period, which resulted in two dunks and a layup. Later on, he tipped in a missed Turkoglu layup. And with the Magic clinging to a two-point lead with 21 seconds to play, he calmly sank two free throws to help put the game away. His defense was huge, too, forcing a jump-ball against James and not committing what would have been a crucial three-shot foul against him on the Cavs' ensuing possession.
For the first time in this series, James got some offensive help from his teammates, and it resulted in arguably the Cavs' best-played offensive game against the Magic... although they once again fell into the stand-around-and-watch-LeBron offense late. Delonte West worked hard for his 17 points. He had his step-back jumper working and repeatedly attacked Alston in the low post. James, too, made the most of his post-up chances against Pietrus. But apart from Daniel Gibson's two three-pointers in the waning minutes of the first half, Cleveland got very little from the perimeter. Mo Williams scored 18 points, but got 8 of those at the foul line. His 5-of-15 mark from the field is more indicative of his offensive play in this game. He's sure to hear it from the media, and maybe even from his teammates, after he failed to make good on his guarantee to win Game 4.
114 points on 99 possessions for Cleveland, which would appear to indicate the Magic played poor defense. Maybe that's true, as they managed to lose track of Anderson Varejao under the rim a few times. But at least acknowledge that the Magic didn't allow their offense to do what they wanted to do, namely drive-and-kick. As John Krolik of Cavs: The Blog indicates, 5 of Cleveland's 6 three-pointers came off the dribble, while the other was a well-contested look.
What's clear about the Cavs, more than anything else, after this game is the following: they're not sure what else they can do in this series. Coach Mike Brown dusted off Wally Szczerbiak, who did not play in Game 3, and put him out there for 21 minutes. Gibson made a cameo in the first half of Game 3; he played 22 minutes tonight. Meanwhile, Sasha Pavlovic earned a DNP-CD tonight after playing 25 minutes in Game 3. I don't mean to demean Brown's coaching, but it's rather telling that he still can't decide on a rotation that works against the Magic. It's his team that's being reactive, and not proactive, in this series. And that's one reason why it's in a 3-1 hole right now.
This game was unique in that both teams had their chances to put the other away. Cleveland couldn't capitalize on its 8-point halftime lead, while the Magic themselves led by 6 with 4:18 left in regulation. For the first time in a while, the Magic nearly gave a game away, which was legitimately surprising to see given their recent history. But no, there's no reason to question their playoff moxie now.
The Magic head to Cleveland and will try to finish off the Cavs this Thursday night. Another effort like tonight should get it done.