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Tonight's Game: Orlando Magic at Cleveland Cavaliers

2008/2009 NBA Regular Season
Orlando Magic main logo
Cleveland Cavaliers main logo
49-17 53-13
March 17th, 2009
Quicken Loans Arena
7:00 PM
FSN Florida HD / NBA TV
Probable starters:
Rafer Alston PG Mo Williams
Courtney Lee SG Delonte West
Hedo Turkoglu SF LeBron James
Rashard Lewis PF Anderson Varejao
Dwight Howard C Zydrunas Ilgauskas
Previous Meetings:
January 29th: Magic 99, Cavaliers 88

Something simply has to give in tonight's matchup between the Orlando Magic and the Cleveland Cavalliers. On the one hand, Orlando has won 7 of the last 9 games between the two teams, including the only meeting this year. Orlando won by 11, but Cleveland scored the game's last 14 points, making the score look more respectable than it should have. On the other hand, the Cavaliers are a remarkable 29-1 at home this season. Here's how Cavs forward LeBron James summarized the matchup:

"They're a very good road team. We're a very good home team," James said. "We're looking forward to the challenge and I bet those guys are looking forward to the challenge also."

The person who has the best chance of affecting the outcome of the game is not James, this year's favorite to win the MVP award, but rather Dwight Howard. With power forward/post defender extraordinaire Ben Wallace sidelined due to a broken left leg, the Cavs' interior defense has been spotty at best. Anderson Varejao, who has moved into the starting lineup in Wallace's place, is an energetic player, but he's prone to wandering on defense, among other bad habits. Starting center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who is playing despite a broken nose, had this much to say about his team's strategy for defending Dwight:

"Obviously we won't be able to stop him, but we'll try to slow him down, keep him off the offensive boards, limit his easy opportunities, make him work for everything."

Indeed, Howard got whatever he wanted in the first game between these two teams this season. I expect Cleveland will be much more aggressive defending him than they were then, this time around daring Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu to take over the game from the outside. Lewis is in a nasty shooting slump, and Turk is still trying to round into form after missing two games due to a sore foot. Dallas had success against Orlando using this strategy earlier this year, essentially letting Howard wreak havoc inside while staying glued to the other four players on the court.

Cleveland's much-improved offense (20th in efficiency last year, 4th this year, with an increase of 6.2 points per 100 possessions) begins and ends with James. He either gets into the lane for an emphatic finish, draws a foul, or dishes to one of Cleveland's deadly three-point shooters. Five Cavs--Mo Williams (44.1%), Delonte West (40.3%), Daniel Gibson (36.7%), Wally Szczerbiak (40.0%), and Sasha Pavlovic (43.9%) --are credible long-range threats, especially off a James kick-out. James himself is a spotty shooter from long-distance, at 33.1% this season, but has two monster games (8-of-11, 6-of-7) under his belt this year.

Something to watch, though is how often James even attempts to drive the lane. In recent games against Orlando, he has not attacked the basket with much intensity or success. That was never more evident than when these teams met in January, in a game in which James shot 10-of-27 overall. Dwight Howard looms large. He'll control Orlando's offense and defense, and it's incumbent on him to deal Cleveland its second home loss of the season, and--more importantly--to keep Orlando playing its best ball as it enters the final stretch of the season. As Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said, Orlando must win tonight and when these teams meet again on April 3rd if it even wants to entertain the thought of overtaking the Cavs for the top seed in the East:

"With as few games as there are left, with 16, our chances to catch them are pretty slim, anyway, and if you don't win the two head-to-head games you have no chance."

Tip's at 7. Go Magic.