Thanks to LeBron James' marvelous performance, the Cleveland Cavaliers staved off elimination at the hands of the Orlando Magic, taking Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, 112-102. James tallied a triple-double with 37 points, 14 rebounds, and 12 assists. More importantly, he scored or assisted on every crucial Cavalier bucket in the fourth period--which the Cavaliers entered trailing--helping them outscore the Magic, 34-23, and thus take the win. Hedo Turkoglu scored 29 points on 10-of-18 shooting to lead Orlando, while Dwight Howard scored 24 points and grabbed 10 rebounds before fouling out late in the game. The scene shifts to Orlando for Game 6 this Saturday.
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This game resembled the previous two games in this series held in Cleveland, as the Cavs--possibly aided by a raucous crowd at Quicken Loans Arena--got off to a hot start before regressing sharply to the mean. In this instance, "hot start" means hitting 10 of their first 11 shots, and leading by as many as 22 points. Indeed, the score at the 1:47 mark of the first period showed the Cavs had a 34-12 advantage. Thing is, they didn't do anything differently on offense, except for the whole "ball going in the basket" part. Same drive-and-kick action. It added up to non-James Cavaliers shooting 27-of-52 from the field and 9-of-16 from three-point range. Cleveland has waited all series for its role-players to show up. Unfortunately for Orlando, tonight was that night. Mo Williams and Daniel Gibson combined for 35 points on 19 attempts, with 2 turnovers. They accounted for all 9 of Cleveland's three-pointers. Good luck beating the Cavaliers when they have the drive-and-kick going.
Thing is, the Magic nearly did it. Much will be made of their losing the lead in the fourth quarter, and maybe some people will attribute it to having to use so much energy just to get back into the game. That's partially true at best. Cleveland, simply put, played its best defense of the series. The open looks to which Orlando became accustomed in the first four games were no longer there, save for Turkoglu, apparently. Howard had a tremendous game down low as the Cavs mixed-up their double-team coverages, hoping to confuse the Magic's center. Funny that it was Ben Wallace and Zydrunas Ilgauskas who ended up being confused. Their abject refusal to wrap Howard up, as coach Mike Brown instructed unequivocally, was amusing. Kelly Dwyer touched on this point after Game 4, but it bears repeating: Wallace greatly overestimates his own defensive abilities. He cannot play Howard straight up, and although people have tried to tell him that, it's simply not going through. The Cavs repeatedly allowed Howard to finish at the basket after an offensive rebound or deep post catch. Usually, that's a bad sign for any Magic opponent.
So give Cleveland credit. A lot of it. It forced the Magic to play a lot of individual basketball tonight, with only 10 assists on their 28 field goals. Nothing came easy for them, particularly for Rashard Lewis and Rafer Alston. Those two players were the heroes in Game 4 for their timely three-point shooting. Tonight? Not so much. Not at all, in fact. Lewis hoisted 13 shots--the first time he's managed double-figure shot attempts since Game 2--and made just 4. Compounding the issue was his inaccuracy at the foul line. Orlando went 28-of-41 at the line tonight, so it was a team-wide malaise, but Lewis' 4-of-7 showing there did not help the Magic's cause.
Then there's Alston. Nobody expected him to duplicate his 26-point performance from Game 4, or even his 18-point performance from Game 3. And as much as I want to write, "but nobody expected him to shoot 1-of-10 and go scoreless for the last 47:42 of the game," it's not exactly true. Rafer has shot 6-of-27 in the three games in Cleveland this series, which has me wiping egg off my face after highlighting his usually outstanding marksmanship in The Q over the last several seasons. Poor shooting, poor decision-making, and poor defense from Rafer tonight. Not even Anthony Johnson's steady play--yeah, he shot 2-of-6, but it seemed better than that--mitigated Rafer's poor showing.
Rafer's poor play had me questioning why he was even on the floor with the game on the line during the fourth period. Either he has it or he doesn't, and tonight, he didn't. Quite obviously. The Magic have had some success with Hedo Turkoglu running point-forward, using Courtney Lee as the nominal point guard with Mickael Pietrus in the backcourt. Very, very surprised not to see that lineup on the floor late in the game, and I can't think of any disadvantages to using it, frankly. Lee can handle either Williams or Gibson, with Turkoglu trying to check the other one as Pietrus works (futilely?) to defend James. And before pointing out that Turkoglu hasn't the quickness to effectively defend those guys, let me remind you that they're essentially stand-still shooters in late-game situations, as James gets the ball at the top of the key and goes to work. He's the one doing the driving and the kicking, not them. Turk, at 6'10", has the size and length to effectively close out on either player. So again, I ask: "why didn't the Magic go point-guard-free at the end of the game?"
What it really boils down to is that James, who is magnificent in his own right, finally got a boost from his teammates. Gibson's hot shooting is no surprise, given that he is a career 43.9% three-point shooter in home games. The Cavs laid it all on the line tonight, as they had to, and for that you doff your cap. With that said, do not buy the line that the pressure is on the Magic to win Game 6, because they want to avoid a Game 7 in Cleveland. The latter part of the statement is true--they wanted to avoid a Game 7 tonight--but the former is not. The Cavaliers cannot afford to lose again this season. The pressure is still on them to win, and it really is that simple. They may indeed win out. For all the (deserved) talk about the Cavs' lack of an answer for the Magic's offense, these teams are about as evenly matched as possible. As I Tweeted earlier, the Magic hold a scant 2-point advantage in this series after 245 minutes.
As if you needed me to tell you this series would be a doozy.