Orlando Magic 111, Cleveland Cavaliers 100

The Orlando Magic did essentially whatever they wanted against the Cleveland Cavaliers' overmatched defense in their 111-100 victory Friday night, riding another strong interior performance from Dwight Howard (23 points on 5-of-9 shooting) and, a solid step forward for the team, and accurate (14-of-31) three-point shooting, turning in their second-most efficient offensive outing of the year. The Magic made 11 of those three-pointers in the first half en route to opening up a 13-point lead, keeping victory just out of the Cavaliers' reach the rest of the way even when the treys stopped dropping.

I give Cleveland a lot of credit for hanging around and playing well above its station; this is a team that competed hard, but didn't necessarily play well, for the full 48 minutes. And the Magic can't be too pleased with their performance on the night, as the Cavaliers shot 8-of-21 from long range and won the rebounding battle, 39-33, two things that could have cost the Magic the game were it not for their own hot outside shooting. Defense, too, was a concern: Antawn Jamison scored 22 points in 30 minutes, while reserve point guard Ramon Sessions got wherever he wanted to on the court and finished with 13 points on 6-of-8 shooting to go with 6 assists.

The Cavaliers aren't a terribly talented team, but they can put these sorts of points on the board if their opponents aren't careful. I think it's safe to say the Magic weren't entirely engaged defensively. Then again, they didn't exactly need to be, given the ease with which they scored themselves. I'm scarcely an expert, OK, but it stands to reason that hoopsters lose focus defensively when they hardly miss anything offensively. Against a bottom-feeding team like Cleveland--and don't let the 6-9 record fool you, this team will finish well into the lottery, given that it's faced an easy schedule with unimpressive results--the Magic can get away with some slippage. That won't be the case against more capable opponents, though.

Team Pace Efficiency eFG% FT Rate OReb% TO Rate
Cavaliers 93 107.6 51.8% 14.1 27.5 15.1
Magic 90 123.9 65.3% 23.6 12.5 14.5
Green denotes a stat better than the team's season average;
red denotes a stat worse than the team's season average.

The Cavaliers don't really have much going on defensively. Anderson Varejao always plays Howard well, and gets under his skin a bit, but it seemed any sort of action that forced Varejao to provide help defense elsewhere resulted in an easy Magic bucket. Jameer Nelson, Chris Duhon, and J.J. Redick all aggressively probed the Cavaliers' defense, didn't meet much resistance on the perimeter, and managed to create easy looks. Say what you will about the Magic's mediocre work at the other end of the floor, but they indeed deserve praise for moving the ball around and getting wide-open looks. Curiously, Cleveland didn't seem too worried about Orlando's three-point shooting. While it wasn't as though Quentin Richardson (4-of-5), Redick (3-of-6), and Duhon (2-of-3) were shooting in an empty gym, they did get most of their looks reasonably open and in rhythm.

Under coach Byron Scott, the Cavaliers run the Princeton offense, with which I've never been impressed. The Magic have proven effective in limiting it in recent years, against the Eddie Jordan-coached Washington Wizards and Philadelphia 76ers. But tonight, Mo Williams and Sessions kept the Magic guessing with their dribble-drives, and they too managed to find the seams in Orlando's defense. As a result, the Cavaliers, who start the offensive non-entity Varejao in the pivot--scored 44 points in the paint. The point here is that Orlando's defense can't continue to be a step slow against better teams.

Tonight's game was the sort of one that the Magic have every now and again where they shoot so well from the outside that it masks their deficiencies elsewhere. Orlando will certainly take the 11-point victory, and season-best performances from Duhon and Richardson, and another win without top perimeter scorer Vince Carter, and yet another brilliant performance from Jameer Nelson (20 points, 9-of-13 shooting, 6 assists). These things are all welcome. But the poor defensive rotations and lack of commitment to rebounding are red flags. One hopes they're simply a result of playing a far inferior opponent, and not a sign of deeper problems. Given that the Magic have ranked among the league's top teams in terms of defense and rebounding all year, the former is probable. The latter, though, is possible. Something worth keeping in mind, particularly on Saturday night, when the Magic play an even worse Wizards team that shouldn't present them many challenges at all.

If Nelson sustains this level of play, he'll certainly join Howard in Los Angeles this February for the NBA All-Star Game.

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