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Orlando Magic 101, Cleveland Cavaliers 95

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In a tight game before a playoff-intensity crowd at Amway Arena, the Orlando Magic rallied from a 5-point deficit with 6:56 to play to defeat the new-look Cleveland Cavaliers, 101-95, dealing Cleveland its third straight defeat. Dwight Howard came up big, as usual, for Orlando, with 22 points, 16 boards, and 4 blocked shots. However, he took on a supporting role offensively during Orlando's big run to end the game, as starting guards Jameer Nelson and Vince Carter stole the show by scoring all 16 of Orlando's points during the decisive 16-3 stretch. Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said it was "a hell of a game" because "the best players all played really well." Indeed, Cleveland's high-profile trio of LeBron James (33 points, 9 boads, 6 assists), Shaquille O'Neal (20 points on 9-of-10 shooting) and Antawn Jamison (19 points, 8 boards) put on a show, but it simply wasn't enough to vault Cleveland over the top. Orlando made the late run by consistently using a new play, a side pick-and-roll with Carter and Nelson which Van Gundy said he only installed yesterday. In his typical style, Van Gundy called the play "simple" and said there are "third-grade teams that can come up with that stuff." Regardless of its simplicity, the play proved effective, as the Cavaliers could not stop it. Orlando stopped its 2-game losing skid against Cleveland and will try to knot the series at two on April 11th.

Team Pace Efficiency eFG% FT Rate OReb% TO Rate
Cavaliers 94 101.0 48.2% 19.5 24.3 14.9
Magic 86 117.1 56.2% 26.0 15.0 12.7
Green denotes a stat better than the team's season average;
red denotes a stat worse than the team's season average.

Ignoring for a moment how the game played out, Van Gundy is right: it was incredibly fun to watch, and I imagine fans with no rooting interest in either side enjoyed it tremendously. For example, the teams traded baskets for a stretch spanning nearly 5 minutes late in the third quarter, with neither side able to string together consecutive scores until James and J.J. Hickson went back-to-back for 4 points to give the Cavs a 75-72 lead. Rashard Lewis said the crowd got so loud at times that he had trouble hearing Van Gundy's instructions or the referees' whistles. One factor I look at to gauge fan engagement is to see how many cheers or ovations the crowd starts spontaneously, without any prompting from the P.A. or JumboTron. Well, in crunch time, everyone stood to watch without any outside encouragement, which forced those of us sitting on the concourse-level media seats to stand as well. I just wanted to note the atmosphere before getting into, you know, the actual proceedings.

Early on, Orlando was simply the better team. It moved the ball, established Howard inside against O'Neal, and got clean looks. As a result, Orlando hung 20 points in the paint against Cleveland in the first period alone. The Cavs adjusted, yielding just 22 more paint points the rest of the game, but they obviously could do nothing to take away the points they gave up in the first quarter. Damage done, and all that.

This sort of result, with James, O'Neal, and the newcomer Jamison each playing well and carrying the Cavs for long stretches, highlights what makes them a dangerous team. James is dynamite in the open floor and can get to the rim almost at will--which calls into question his heaving of jumper after jumper, incidentally--so he's a threat. Shaq is still very hard to handle in the post. Howard and Marcin Gortat (in his 4-minute, 31-second cameo) gave him all he could handle, but he made some difficult shots. Howard's only mistake on him was trying to strip the ball and missing, which gave Shaq an opening for an easy two and a 56-53 Cavs lead shortly after halftime. And an invisible Jamison came to life in the third, scoring 10 of his 19 points and willing Cleveland, which trailed by 6 at intermission, back into the game. Matt Barnes attributed the Cavs' 10-0 run at the beginning of the third quarter to Jamison getting "hot" and the Magic's "not answering back." The Magic missed 4 shots and committed a turnover before finally getting on the board, but even that was only due to a defensive three-second technical. But Barnes said Cleveland's burst was to be expected because "any time you've got a good team, you know they're going to make a run" and "you just have to stay poised." The Cavs scored 1.33 points per possession in the third after managing a mere 0.91 in the first half, which made their burst so surprising.

Then again, the Cavs trailed by just 6 at halftime despite James and O'Neal scoring 34 of their 43 points, so any boost they got from another player should have been enough for them to take control from Orlando.

And it was, for a time. But Carter and Nelson came on strong late, as noted, with Carter's output the most shocking because he scored just 3 points on 1-of-6 shooting prior to the fourth. Van Gundy wasn't worried about that, though. "More than the overall numbers," he said, "what we really need him to do is finish in the fourth.

Which is what Carter did. He seemed very comfortable running the new 1/2 pick-and-roll, and with good reason; I overheard him saying, "that's my pet play from [New] Jersey," with a laugh, in the locker room. The Magic took James, an excellent team and individual defender, out of the picture by isolating Carter and Nelson on the left, which put pressure on Delonte West, Mo Williams, and later Anthony Parker after Carter snuck free of West for a highlight-reel dunk. On his way out of the locker room, Carter and Nelson had this exchange:

"Thank you for that pass."

"You're welcome."

"I'll take you to dinner tonight if you call me."

"Alright. Thanks, Vince."

West and Parker are sound, skilled defenders, but Carter exploited his height and strength advantage on West time and again in the low post. Van Gundy said he wished he went to this new play sooner in the game, and perhaps there's something to that. Prior to Carter checking in at the 6:55 mark, Orlando had made just 1 field goal and scoreed 6 points in the period, and Cleveland had extended its 1-point edge to 5. On the other hand, there's strategic value in saving that new play for a critical juncture in the game.

What Carter seemed most proud of was his drive-and-dish to Lewis in the left corner for the clinching three-pointer. Finding teammates in their favorite spots "is just like scoring to me," he said. Prior to today's game, Lewis had connected on 27 of his 63 attempts from the left corner, or 42.9%. In last year's playoffs, he made 15 of 25 from that spot, or 60%. The clincher resembled a big shot he made against Cleveland in the Conference Finals here at Amway Arena. Asked if he had deja vu on that shot, Lewis said, "a little bit, but not necessarily."

I've made a pretty big to-do so far about the Magic's fourth-quarter offense, potentially at the expense of their defense. The Cavaliers supposedly traded for O'Neal to fortify the low post on both sides of the ball, which they've accomplished this season. And certainly many fans and media types alike have argued that Cleveland sought O'Neal as a direct response to Howard, who crushed it in last year's playoffs. I'm not sure about the latter point--the Cavs had a chance to obtain a future Hall-of-Famer for two guys at the end of their bench, so of course they made that trade. In any case, while O'Neal gives Howard problems one-on-one, I'm left to wonder if his camping out in the post away from the ball actually helps the Magic, specifically their defense. Howard managed to successfully remove Shaq from the play, challenge the driving Cavalier's shot, and secure the board numerous times throughout the game, and in the fourth quarter. He tallied 3 defensive rebounds and 2 blocks in the final frame. His success in that regard got me wondering about the impact the Jamison trade has made on the Magic's defense of the low-post. They did have to deal lifelong Cavalier Zydrunas Ilgauskas to obtain Jamison, and Ilgauskas doesn't typically park his 7'03" frame in the post. He lounges about the mid-range area, and his solid shooting stroke means Howard has to honor that, however reluctantly.

I asked Howard about how the Cavs differ without Z in the lineup. "When Shaq is out of the game [...] they can't run the pick and roll with Ilgauskas, and he can spread the floor, and they didn't have that," he said. "It's a different style, and something we both have to get adjusted to. "

Perhaps not for long. The Wizards are progressing toward a buyout agreement with Ilgauskas, as Adrian Wojnarowski reports, and it's widely assumed that he will re-sign with Cleveland after the requisite waiting period. Wojnarowski cites a report in the Los Angeles Times that says the NBA will prevent Ilgauskas from returning, however, because there's evidence that the Cavaliers made the trade on the condition that the Wizards would buy Ilgauskas out. Ilgauskas' agent denied that the NBA has intervened in this way, and that it's a foregone conclusion that Ilgauskas will once again don wine and gold (or orange and blue, as was the case today, with the Cavs wearing goofy throwback uniforms) once Washington grants him his release. Stay tuned.

Going forward, adjustments are indeed the name of the game. Cavaliers coach Mike Brown and his staff will be better prepared for the 1/2 pick-and-roll next time. In reference to Jamsion, Van Gundy said "we prepared for his pick-and-rolls [...] but did not prepare for his post-ups," which will change. But for right now, Orlando has a win against Cleveland under its belt. As Barnes said, the Magic "got the job done" today, which is what counts most in the short term.