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Tonight's Game: Cleveland Cavaliers at Orlando Magic

UPDATE: Four All-Stars will take the floor tonight, and three of them will wear an Orlando Magic uniform. We giddily passed along the news from Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski an hour ago, but it bears repeating: Jameer Nelson and Rashard Lewis are All-Stars. Dwight Howard's gotta be happy, but LeBron James won't be. He lobbied hard for his teammate Mo Williams to make the team, which he didn't. Williams has been hotter than Hell lately, and an angry James is a lethal James, so I hope the Magic can avoid their "Eff-You" games and pull out the win tonight.

2008/2009 NBA Regular Season
Cleveland Cavaliers main logo
Orlando Magic main logo
35-8 34-10
January 29th, 2009
Amway Arena
8:00 PM
Probable starters:
Mo Williams PG Jameer Nelson
Sasha Pavlovic SG Courtney Lee
LeBron James SF Hedo Turkoglu
Ben Wallace PF Rashard Lewis
Anderson Varejao C Dwight Howard

The Orlando Magic may have dodged a bit of a bullet tonight, as the Cleveland Cavaliers will likely be without Zydrunas Ilgauskas, their usual starting center, due to a sprained left ankle. Reports earlier in the week indicated he might be available tonight, and he indeed traveled with the team to Orlando, but he is nonetheless listed as doubtful. That's a good thing, because Big Z was playing like an All-Star before he got hurt, and his reliable jumper pulls Howard away from the paint, opening up driving lanes for LeBron James.

Essentially, Cleveland is left with three credible offensive players in its starting lineup; Anderson Varejao and Ben Wallace are not scoring threats in a set offense. That doesn't mean the Magic can just completely forget about them and double-team James or Mo Williams, though. Varejao and Wallace are lethal offensive rebounders, and the Magic can't afford to yield too many of those. Cleveland is simply too good offensively to screw up on many of its second-chance opportunities. As Bradford Doolittle mentioned is his exclusive interview with 3QC yesterday, Cleveland spend most of this month leading the league in both offensive efficiency and defensive efficiency. Yikes.

The latter point is why I believe the key to a Magic win tonight is simply execution. The Cavs rank second in defensive efficiency, third in effective field goal percentage defense, and fifth in opponent turnover rate. The Magic aren't going to get many open looks unless they run their offense to perfection; they also need to connect on those open looks since they will probably be few and far between, and because Cleveland is going to force its share of turnovers.

That said, the Cavs' defense has slipped lately. After the Cavs beat the Kings, 117-110, to improve to 21-0 at home (!), Brian Windhorst of the Plain Dealer explained their defensive struggles:

Over the last five games, the Cavs have given up 47 percent shooting and 103 points per game. This from the NBA leader in both categories (90 points, 42 percent).

Here's where it gets really good, though:

The Cavs had difficulty guarding the Kings' pick-and-roll and left purple jerseys open for jumpers all evening. The Kings cannot play defense or rebound, which will be discussed in a moment, but they can shoot.

The Magic are one of the league's best pick-and-roll teams, with either Hedo Turkoglu or Jameer Nelson working off a Dwight Howard pick. Turk prefers to drive all the way to the rim, while Nelson likes to noodle around in the lane before shooting a mid-range jumper, dishing the ball to Rashard Lewis or Courtney Lee beyond the arc, or hitting Howard on his roll to the hoop. I like the Magic's chances running the pick-and-roll tonight, but Dwight needs to be extra careful on his rolls; Varejao and Wallace draw a ton of offensive fouls, although I can't find a link to the data on that claim. Sorry.

Anyway, this preview has gone on for long enough. A victory for Orlando would do a lot to boost its reputation league-wide, especially after its decisive defeat to the Boston Celtics exactly one week ago. This must-watch game tips at 8 on TNT, but you'll want to tune in at 7 for the reveal of the All-Star reserves. Jameer Nelson, Rashard Lewis, and Hedo Turkoglu might get their tickets to Phoenix punched (and their bgcolor="gold" attribute added to my lineup cards, although that's the furthest thing from their minds right now); so might Cleveland's Mo Williams, although I don't believe he's done enough this year to merit consideration over the East's other contending point guards (Nelson, Rajon Rondo, and Devin Harris). Terry Pluto thinks otherwise, though.

Go Magic.