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May 31, 2009
Playoff Prospectus
A Magic Night

by Kevin Pelton

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Orlando 103, Cleveland 90 (Orlando wins series 4-2)
Pace: 86.8
Offensive Ratings: Orlando 118.9, Cleveland 103.4

Every time a postseason series goes counter to expectations, we face the problem of trying to determine whether it was a case of the winning team playing better than expected, the losing team underachieving or somewhere in between. It feels like this has been an issue more this postseason than ever, from the Lakers and Rockets going to seven games, to Orlando being tested by Boston, to the Magic now upsetting Cleveland. Maybe it's human nature, but it seems that more often than not the focus is more on what the losing team did wrong than what the winning team did right, which tends to be unfair to the team that is moving on.

Let's be clear on this point: The Orlando Magic played a brilliant Eastern Conference Finals. Something legitimately changed for Orlando between Games Five and Six of the series with the Celtics, sparked primarily by Stan Van Gundy's decision to emphasize the pick-and-roll game involving Dwight Howard. Combine that with lights-out three-point shooting, even from unlikely suspects like Rafer Alston (3-for-7 in Game Six) and Mickael Pietrus (4-for-7 last night, 17-for-36, .472, for the series) and defense that made Cleveland look inept, and the Magic earned this series victory.

The Howard we saw last night was a player entirely different from even the one who contended for MVP throughout the regular season. This time, he needed no help from the shooters around him or the pick-and-roll. Howard did his work early, establishing the kind of deep post position that translates into easy scores time and again. Even when he was forced further away from the basket, Howard showed the kind of touch that makes him potentially unstoppable. That was true at the free-throw line, where he made 12 shots in 16 attempts. This was the best offensive performance I've ever seen from Howard, and considering the context, almost certainly the best of his career.

When Cleveland did bring the double-team, Howard was able to find shooters who made their shots. He had four assists and at other times started the ball moving as Orlando's passes proved faster than the Cavaliers' defensive rotations, producing open looks. The Magic was 12-for-29 from three-point range as a team. Despite all the touches he had, Howard committed two turnovers, and that as much as anything else is an indicator of how locked in he was at the offensive end.

Over the course of this series, Cleveland had a choice between getting beaten by the two (from Howard inside) and the three (from the shooters on the perimeter). Similarly, Orlando has had the choice between letting LeBron James have control of the game or forcing the Cavaliers' role players to beat them. (Granted, there's only so much a defense can do to take James out of the game, as he can more capably beat a double-team). As it turned out, both of those strategies were viable in Game Six.

Everyone kept waiting for James to take over the game, but that superhuman run never came. The Magic was able to make life difficult enough for James without sacrificing the rest of their defense. Even when Cleveland's other players got open looks, they generally failed to convert. Mo Williams was an exception, scoring 17 points on 13 shooting possessions, Anderson Varejao shot 7-for-12 from the field and Delonte West's ability to create kept the Cavaliers in the game at times. Everyone else was either terrible or a non-factor, and I'm not sure which was worse for Cleveland.

Basically, the Cavaliers were never able to find more than four reliable players in this series: James, Varejao, West and Williams (who might not even have qualified in the first four games). That fifth spot proved impossible to fill. Zydrunas Ilgauskas simply had a terrible matchup which saw him both unable to contend with Howard defensively and mostly quiet on offense. In 22 minutes in Game Six, he scored two points on 1-for-5 shooting, and Cleveland needed more offense to justify keeping him on the floor.

Of course, Mike Brown's other options were sketchy at best. Howard took to playing about 10 feet off Ben Wallace whenever he was in the game, clogging up the middle against the Cavaliers' offense. Wally Szczerbiak seemed to have aged about a decade overnight in this series, and he finished it by shooting 1-for-5 and throwing up a pair of airballs, making it pointless to have him out there. Daniel Gibson was, I suppose, Brown's best option, but he was unavailable for the third quarter because of back spasms, keeping Brown from going small. Even when Gibson was on the floor, he was hardly a force, scoring three points in 21 minutes.

This brings us back to the original question, which is how a Cleveland offense that made such tremendous strides in the regular season could regress so much in this series. This came without warning, given the way the Cavaliers blew past their first two opponents in the postseason. Maybe that is the story of Cleveland's season. I usually don't pay a ton of attention to this stat, but the Cavaliers were 3-6 against the other three top regular-season teams (Boston, the L.A. Lakers and Orlando) in the regular season. Cleveland was consistent in a bad way, beating the crap out of the bad teams and having a tough time against other elite ones. Did the Cavaliers just not have another gear to go to in those matchups?

Meanwhile, Orlando actually tied the Lakers for the best winning percentage of those four teams in head-to-head matchups, going 6-3. For whatever reason, the Magic played its best when the competition was at the highest level. Part of that might be a matchup issue. Like the Celtics before them, Cleveland badly missed the jump-shooting, lanky four of the Robert Horry/James Posey mold who could have defended Rashard Lewis and spread the floor on offense. Howard also proved a thorny matchup throughout the series, and the Cavaliers were never able to exploit anything that looked like an advantage on paper save for James.

Surely, James will be criticized in some quarters for being unable to single-handedly will his team to victory, or at least a competitive finish. Even here, his 25-point, seven-rebound, seven-assist outing seems like a disappointment. However, it looked like James was spent through much of this series, even though Cleveland asked less of him in the regular season and through the first two rounds of the playoffs because of their regular lopsided victories. That's one of the bizarre aspects of this series--Orlando, which had to play 13 games en route to the Eastern Conference Finals, continually looking fresher than a Cavaliers team that played the minimum eight.

James simply had too much weight to carry at both ends of the floor, and I think the defensive end particularly proved his undoing. Because of his smallish backcourt and lack of a reliable matchup for Lewis, Brown had to move James around to defend both Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu at stretches while also funneling virtually every offensive possession through him. James visibly wore down under the stress at the end of games and throughout last night. It was a sad conclusion to what was still one of the greatest individual seasons of all time.

Again, it would be a mistake to dwell on what James did not do in this series in the wake of everything Orlando did do. There will be a long offseason to debate how the Cavaliers can work to give James more help. For now, let's credit the Magic with a great series and a well-deserved trip to the Finals that virtually no one expected.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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