Orlando 99, Cleveland 89 (Orlando leads series 2-1)
Offensive Ratings: Orlando 114.0, Cleveland 95.2
Three games into the Eastern Conference Finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers have a new old problem: scoring points. That was Cleveland's shortcoming in 2007, when the team reached the NBA Finals only to be swept by the San Antonio Spurs, and it hardly resolved itself a year ago, though the Cavaliers' defense wasn't able to compensate in the same way as the previous season. This year, for a variety of reasons we've covered before (improvement from LeBron James and an offense that makes better use of his myriad skills, as well as the addition of Mo Williams and the presence of Delonte West from day one), Cleveland has had an offense that has stood with almost any in the league.
We have not seen that offense for most of this series.
The Cavaliers have had their moments, certainly. In the first half of the two games at Quicken Loans Arena, the team scored a combined 119 points. In the other eight quarters, however, Cleveland has totaled 172 points--an average of 21.5 points. In this case, looking at advanced numbers tells the same story. The Cavaliers had 89 points in somewhere over 90 possessions, and that's not generally good enough in the playoffs.
(As for why that doesn't exactly match the Offensive Rating above, remember those numbers are estimates, and for some reason in this series the possession totals between the two teams have been especially skewed; we estimate Cleveland with 93.5 possessions in Game Three and Orlando with 86.8, which obviously is not possible under a definition that has the two teams constantly trading possessions.)
Right now, James is the Cavaliers' offense. While he was on the floor the team scored 82 points, and he had exactly half of them. Add in nine assists and James was responsible in some way for way more than every other score. As brilliant as James has been in this series, and as often as he was able to get to the line last night (24 free throw attempts, making 18 of them), the pressure is on him to be basically perfect offensively. This time, he was totally unable to get his outside game going, shooting 1-for-8 from three-point range and 1-for-7 on long twos. In fact, James's shot chart is totally bizarre. He's got the two makes from outside, and all nine of his other field goals were listed as layups or dunks. James scored entirely at the basket, and it certainly is amazing that even on such a rough night he scored 41 points.
Still, James needs more help, and it has to start with Williams, who has picked a terrible time to go through an extended shooting slump. Williams was 5-for-16 from the field in Game Three, and is hitting at a 32.1 percent clip in the series, including 25.0 percent from downtown. This would be a major problem for Cleveland no matter what, but it has been exacerbated by the fact that Williams has continued to call his own number as if nothing was wrong, trying more shots than any Cleveland player save James. While Orlando's defense gets a lot of credit for the Cavaliers' offensive issues, I don't think this is one of those cases. Williams is getting decent looks from downtown and has simply been unable to hit them.
Though Williams is the main culprit, he's not the only one. Zydrunas Ilgauskas has been uneven in this series, hitting just three of his 10 shot attempts (including 0-for-3 from downtown) in Game 3. Only Delonte West has consistently been a positive presence on offense for Cleveland, and even he struggled through a rough shooting Game One.
In this game, the Magic wasn't exactly shooting the lights out either. With Hedo Turkoglu shooting 1-for-11 from the field, Orlando shot 42.9 percent as a team and had just six free throws. The sole reason the Magic was able to score at a very respectable offensive clip was the team's parade to the free throw line. Taking full advantage of a tightly-whistled affair, the Magic shot 51 free throws. Nearly three out of every 10 offensive plays included a free throw. Turkoglu attempted 12, the reason he was able to score 13 points as part of a double-double (he added 10 rebounds and seven assists), while Howard got to the line 19 times and made a very respectable 14 of them.
I especially enjoyed the way Orlando used Howard. He was frequently the roll man on the pick-and-roll knowing full well that the Cavaliers would take away his path to the basket. What forcing Ilgauskas to help against the ballhandler did was allow Howard to establish deep post position that essentially forced Cleveland to send him to the line. So it was that Howard scored 24 points despite being limited to 28 minutes by foul trouble of his own.
Ever bold, Stan Van Gundy tried more different combinations with his lineups. He decided to use Marcin Gortat as his backup power forward alongside Howard at times, getting the Polish Hammer additional floor time. As well as Gortat has played in the playoffs--and he had another couple of excellent stints when fouls forced Howard to the bench--I don't like that look because it gives Orlando so little shooting up front. The Cavaliers were +3 against the twin big men, so Van Gundy might want to file that one away for now.
Much more successful this time around was the big lineup with Turkoglu at the point. That group produced 11 points in a little over four minutes and was much more successful than Anthony Johnson had been as the backup point in the first half, when the Magic was outscored by 10 points and Johnson nearly was ejected for a Flagrant 2 Foul, later reduced to a Flagrant 1 by replay. Orlando continued to score efficiently when Alston--who had 18 points on 6-of-13 shooting in a solid outing--returned to the game. The Magic scored on eight of its next 10 possessions to keep Cleveland at bay despite James' ability to get to the free-throw line repeatedly.
Orlando primarily relied on Turkoglu running the pick-and-roll with Howard down the stretch, turning the play either into a Turkoglu shot, a look for Howard deep in the post or an opportunity for the player left open by the Cavaliers' defensive rotations. Cleveland tried Williams running the pick-and-roll with James setting the screen, hoping to get James the basketball without having him catch it on the perimeter. More successful for the Cavaliers was James getting a high screen from Ilgauskas or simply isolating his man and breaking him down off the dribble.
The Sasha Pavlovic experiment appears to be a continued success, or at least a qualified one. Cleveland played even with Pavlovic on the floor, and was +3 when he played as part of a small lineup with James at power forward. Pavlovic missed both of his shot attempts, contributing little on offense, but was a big help defensively, especially against Turkoglu.
In terms of lineups, Mike Brown seems to have found solid combinations. His bigger concern will be getting the players he knows will be on the court--most notably Williams--to play the way they did throughout the regular season. That will be the Cavaliers' best bet for evening this series at two apiece in Game Four.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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