With their trademark inside/outside offensive attack working to perfection, the Orlando Magic easily dispatched the Cleveland Cavaliers, 103-90, in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals, a game in which they never trailed. The Magic advance to the NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers. Dwight Howard, the "inside" part of the offense, played the game of his life and was unstoppable underneath, beasting his way toward 40 points on 14-of-21 shooting, with 14 rebounds. Meanwhile, on the "outside," the Magic connected on 12 three-pointers in 29 attempts; Mickael Pietrus led the way with 4 treys in 7 attempts. For the first time in this series, the Magic made LeBron James (25 points on 8-of-20 shooting) look human. He mostly did what he had been doing earlier this series, namely by driving to the basket and jumping into defenders as he tried to finish. Tonight, he rarely got the benefit of the whistle, attempting a mere 11 free throws.
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It's certainly possible for the Cavs to win when secondary players like Delonte West and Mo Williams lighten James' offensive load, as they did tonight with a combined 39 points on 15-of-31 shooting. But nothing the Cavs could have done, short of James taking his game to an even higher level, was going to stop the Magic on a night when they got 40 from Howard and 36 from three-point range. Kevin Arnovitz broke down the offense in greater detail at TrueHoop here, but it suffices to say that this was Magic basketball at its finest. Great ball movement, great player movement, good shot-selection... the team really did not make too many mistakes offensively tonight. And, in a bit of a twist, they ran their offense almost exclusively through Howard in the post. Fewer high screen-and-rolls with Howard and Hedo Turkoglu tonight. But going through Howard worked. He dribbled through or spun around single coverage. He split or passed out of double teams. The Cavs had no answer for anything he did. None. In the most important game of his professional career, he rose to the challenge.
I'm most impressed with his passing. Cleveland didn't vary its double-team coverage much, almost always coming from the high man on the weak side after his first dribble. Dwight read and made the proper adjustments, which also has me wondering why the Cavs didn't sometimes send a help defender from the strong-side baseline, for instance. Keep him guessing.
Dwight was not the only Magic player doing damage, though. They all came through, in some way or another. Rashard Lewis' 8 rebounds, Turkoglu's 7 rebounds and 5 assists... the team's 11 offensive rebounds in 37 opportunities... they just had more than the Cavs did tonight, as has been the case for the entire series, a fact which seems to disprove the popular argument made before the series started that Cleveland would have more energy due to its breezing through the first two rounds of the playoffs.
The Magic ran out to a 30-25 lead at the end of the first period, as Howard matched James with 13 points. And they kept the pressure on in the second, bumping the lead to 11 points at the 7:35 mark, then to 15 at 4:21, then to 16 at 1:25, and finally to 18 with 10 seconds to play in the half. All throughout the period, I kept expecting James to go superhuman and rally his team. He never did. Not to pile on James, who had a magnificent playoffs, but he could not get anything going after that 13-point first period. In the last three periods, he shot 3-of-13 for 12 points. West had 3 more shot attempts and 8 more points in the same timeframe, which was odd to see. Most teams facing double-digit deficits, on the road, in an elimination game, would put the ball in their superstar's hands and have him go to work, especially if that strategy worked in previous games. For whatever reason, the Cavs didn't run many isolation sets for James tonight. With the way they were defending, they would not have overcome an 18-point deficit anyway. Still odd that they didn't at least give it a go, what with the season on the line and all.
Howard is clearly the MVP of this game, but let us not give Lewis short shrift either. He's a matchup nightmare for Cleveland, which has nobody outside of James who can hope to guard him. Forced into early action after Anderson Varejao got himself in foul trouble, Ben Wallace had the unenviable task of guarding Lewis for most of the first quarter. Wallace played him for the shot, so Lewis uncharacteristically put the ball on the floor and drove to the basket, either for the shot or for the kick-out. Wallace later sagged off him, so Lewis elevated for the straightaway three-pointer which rattled in. The stat sheet shows only 2 assists for him, but his passing on the interior (as a driver against Wallace) or around the perimeter (against anyone) helped keep the offense moving. Nobody held the ball too long for Orlando tonight, which forced the Cavs back on their heels. On some scores, it wasn't that the Magic caught the Cavs napping and got an easy bucket, but rather that they worked the ball around so quickly and so well that the Cavs couldn't catch up. That's a rather long-winded way of saying that Cleveland gave a decent effort defensively, and the Magic still tuned it up for 103 points on 87 possessions.
Packed with reporters, ballboys, and other guests--I believe the grandchildren of team owner Rich DeVos were present, seeking autographs from players--their locker room was excited and upbeat after the game, as you might expect. Coach Stan Van Gundy wandered in after his post-game presser, saw the commotion, and said, "Wow, it's busy in here. What happened tonight?" which drew chuckles. Reserve point guard Anthony Johnson (3 assists in 10 minutes tonight, including a killer lead pass to Howard for a fast-break dunk) was so pleased with the win that he wore his Eastern Conference Championship t-shirt out of the locker room, over his dress shirt. Howard had trouble using his phone, which had locked-up due to his receiving too many text messages. Happy times for everyone on Orlando's side.
That's what I'd like to stress now. There will be time in the coming days to size-up the Lakers. Now, though, is time to savor the win. Orlando has reached the championship round just twice in 20 years, which illustrates just how rare these opportunities are. Savor the win now, worry about Los Angeles later. As Van Gundy said in his presser:
"[Preparing for Kobe Bryant after having to prepare for James] will be a lot of fun, but I'm not doing that tonight."
Amen to that.
Game 1 of the NBA Finals takes place this Thursday evening in L.A.