The top two teams in the Eastern Conference will clash this afternoon when the Orlando Magic host the Cleveland Cavaliers. Cleveland won the first two games of the season series handily and has since upgraded its roster with the addition of Antawn Jamison, who had a less-than-auspicious debut as a Cav, shooting 0-of-12 from the field and scoring 2 points in a 17-point loss to Charlotte. Incidentally, the drubbing the Cavs suffered two nights ago was their first defeat by more than 3 points since December 9th. This Cavalier team is a juggernaut, is the point I'm trying to make here.
|2009/2010 NBA Season|
|February 21st, 2010|
|Mo Williams||PG||Jameer Nelson|
|Anthony Parker||SG||Vince Carter|
|LeBron James||SF||Matt Barnes|
|J.J. Hickson||PF||Rashard Lewis|
|Shaquille O'Neal||C||Dwight Howard|
|November 11th: Cavaliers 102, Magic 93|
|February 11th: Cavaliers 115, Magic 106|
With that said, I do not believe Cleveland is unbeatable. As Brian Windhorst points out, it's allowed 3 of its last 5 opponents to eclipse the 50% mark from the field, which happened but twice in its first 41 games, a sign that its defense is vulnerable of late. Additionally, The Magic played the Cavaliers pretty well for long stretches two weeks ago in their first meeting with the Cavs in which they had everyone healthy. Orlando's undoing was its tendency to work itself into offensive funks, which fueled Cavalier rallies. Cleveland put together separate, extended runs of 19-2 and 15-4, as well as the decisive 18-2 spree in the fourth quarter. But apart from that, Orlando played the right way, and has (for the most part) played much better in the last month than it had all year. Much of that has to do with Dwight Howard, who's playing at an MVP level at both ends of the floor right now.
Which brings me to my next point: Howard cannot afford to get in foul trouble this afternoon. The Cavs have only outscored the Magic by 2 points in the 61 minutes he's been on the floor against them this season, and while I hate to pin team success or failure on any one player, I've got to be honest here: he has to play well and stay on the floor today for Orlando to have a chance.
Vince Carter can do his part by picking his spots more carefully. I was all set to mention that he needs to take fewer long jumpers than he did in the last game against Cleveland, but then I looked up how he fared in the first game--in which he scored 29 points and was generally the only Magic player other than Howard to register--and saw that 11 of his 23 attempts were long two-pointers, and that he made 6 of them. Thus, his success in the first game had more to do with his shooting stroke than it did with his decision-making. Regardless, I do believe he has to be more aggressive off the dribble, whether it's getting to the net for an easy two or otherwise dishing to an open shooter. In 70 minutes against Cleveland this season, he's taken 6 layups, and tallied 3 assists. I'd like to see him and Howard run that high screen-and-roll together, which would challenge Shaquille O'Neal and put pressure on the Cavs' help defenders.
What I'm most curious to see, though, is the Magic's defense. Cleveland has torn it up for 1.21 points per possession so far, due largely to LeBron James' brilliance as a scorer and playmaker. In the former aspect, he's averaging 34 points on 63.9% True Shooting against Orlando; in the latter, he's posted 17 assists, including 10 to the rim and another 5 to three-point shooters. He hasn't merely drawn Orlando away from the perimeter, but also from low-post players. In the last game, J.J. Hickson and Anderson Varejao routinely snuck behind the Magic's defense, which paid more attention to James (with the ball) and O'Neal (in the post), and made it pay after James found them. Jamison's arrival ensures Rashard Lewis won't double-team O'Neal away from the ball, as he'll have to honor Jamison's offensive skill, so presumably the Cavs will have fewer backdoor looks. How will they respond? And will the Magic defend James differently? Mickael Pietrus and Matt Barnes forced him to take some difficult looks, but he's converted them anyway, so I don't think they need to change their approach. Anyway, these are among the questions I'm considering.
The game tips at 1. I'm at Amway to cover it live.