Conventional wisdom says that the lone impediment to the hypefest that would be a Kobe-versus-LeBron Finals is a possible upset of Los Angeles by Denver in the Western Conference finals. In the East, nobody is giving Orlando much of a shot against Cleveland.
I'm one of the culprits, having picked Denver in the West and Cleveland in the East. But I should point out that in one sense I'm spitting into a pretty strong headwind. I picked the Nuggets even though they've lost 10 of the past 11 times they've played the Lakers, and I'm picking the Cavs even though they have lost eight of the past 11 times they've played the Magic.
It's hard not to like the Cavs based on how well they've been playing lately, but the one story that's getting completely underplayed is the extent to which Orlando owned Cleveland in the regular season. As recently as April 3, Orlando slapped around the Cavs 116-87, and their other two meetings should also give Cavs fans pause.
Orlando beat Cleveland 99-88 in late January; I was at that game and it wasn't nearly as close as the final score indicated. And even their one meeting in Cleveland -- where the Cavs have been practically invincible this year -- was hotly contested. Cleveland prevailed 97-93 thanks to a last-minute 3-pointer by LeBron James and a controversial three-second call against Orlando at the other end.
All three of those meetings were in the second half of the schedule, so they seem pertinent to this series. Some things have changed since the first game in January -- Jameer Nelson is no longer in the lineup for Orlando, while Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Delonte West missed that game with injuries and Joe Smith has been added since -- but the teams had their full complements of players for the final two meetings.
As a result, it's possible this will be much closer than the five-game series I've predicted.
If that happens, it will be because the Magic do the same things they did in their regular season meetings. Let's go through the list item by item:
They controlled the defensive glass.
Against every other team, the Cavs were pretty good on the offensive boards, pulling down 27.7 percent of missed shots, and in the playoffs they furthered that advantage. Thanks to bigs like Ilgauskas, Smith, Ben Wallace and Anderson Varejao and their playing volleyball on the glass, Cleveland's 32.9 percent offensive rebound rate leads all playoff teams, with the destruction particularly one-sided in Games 3 and 4 against Atlanta.
Against Orlando? Not so much. The Cavs grabbed only 27 offensive rebounds in the three games, and there were a lot of misses there for the grabbing -- 136 of them, in fact. So Cleveland's 19.9 percent offensive rebound rate was more like something you'd see from the pre-Shaq Suns.
Orlando was second in defensive rebound rate in both the regular season and the playoffs, and it'll need to sustain that advantage against Cleveland.
They didn't foul.
Cleveland averaged only 18 free throws per game against Orlando, earning just 0.216 free throw attempts for every field goal attempt -- the league average this season was 0.306, and the Cavs were slightly above that mark in the regular season at 0.311.
Interestingly, LeBron still got his, shooting 26 free throws in the three games. But the other Cavs combined for a mere 28, as the likes of Ilgauskas (just 2 attempts), Williams (7) and West (0) became strictly jump-shooters.
Of course, the lack of fouls had another positive effect for the Magic. They were able to keep their starters on the court for close to 40 minutes because they weren't in foul trouble.
They let it rip.
Cleveland led the NBA in 3-point defense, allowing opponents to shoot just 33.3 percent from downtown. Orlando led the NBA in 3-point frequency, taking more than a third of its field goal attempts from distance. On paper, that would seem to be an exceedingly bad combination for the Magic. The one thing they do most often is the one thing that the Cavs most excel at preventing.
But it hasn't worked out that way when they've played. Orlando shot 34-of-86 from distance in the three games, a sizzling 39.5 percent. The percentage isn't the only part that stands out -- careful observers will have already taken note of the "86" in the line above. Yes, the Magic attempted 86 3-pointers in the three games, an average of nearly 30 a contest. The 3s accounted for 35.7 percent of their shot attempts.
So when they've played Cleveland, the Magic have both taken more 3-pointers and made more than they did against other opponents, even though the Cavs overall were great at preventing 3s.
Obviously, the defense against Dwight Howard likely has a lot to do with this. He's too strong and quick for Ilgauskas, and there's nobody else for Big Z to guard. If the Cavs feel compelled to double Howard, as they did in the regular season, then 3-point looks will be available.
So let me throw out one oddball thought: What if the Cavs go small and put James on Howard? He's their strongest player, by far, and as long as he can push Howard out an extra foot he'll have done his job. It's unconventional and probably only a fourth-quarter move (they can't have James picking up fouls early), but it's worth considering if nobody else can handle Howard.
Mickael Pietrus played a ton.
LeBron is a tough cover for Hedo Turkoglu. LeBron is a tough cover for anyone, of course, but particularly for a guy whose defense has never gained much attention.
The way the Magic dealt with this in the regular season was by using Pietrus heavily off the bench. He played only 24.6 minutes per game overall in the regular season, and just 22.8 in the second half of the season when he came back from injury and all three meetings against Cleveland took place. But in those three games versus the Cavs, he played 29, 28 and 28 minutes, with the job of stopping LeBron his primary task.
Pietrus comes off a strong series against the Celtics in which he took on similar responsibilities against Paul Pierce, so he should be ready to step up to the challenge.
Their point guards played well.
If there's a weak link in Cleveland's superb defense, it's pick-and-roll D against point guards -- Mo Williams isn't a great defender and Ilgauskas isn't the most mobile big man, so together they make a promising tandem to attack.
In all three meetings, Orlando's point guards have been able to produce. In the first meeting Nelson went for 18 points and had just one turnover; Anthony Johnson added nine points off the bench. In the second game Rafer Alston scored 23 and added four assists; Johnson produced three and three off the bench and Tyronn Lue chipped in a pair of 3-pointers. And in the third meeting, Johnson scored 10 points in 15 minutes while Alston added 10 assists.
Altogether, the Magic point guards averaged 26.7 points in the three games -- this coming from a position for which the main job description in the first two playoff rounds was "just don't kill us." They also had 23 assists against nine turnovers, and were particularly deadly on 3s against Cleveland, making 14 of 26. Clearly the Cavs decided in those games to go under screens and let the Magic point guards fire away. But in this do-or-die series, they can't be so Cavalier about it. (That's the last pun of the day, I swear.)
Is it possible for all this to happen again four times in a seven-game series? The rebounding, free throw and 3-point numbers certainly seem like outliers, but perhaps there's a kernel of truth in them, too -- that with Howard patrolling the middle, the Cavs can't get the kind of shots they get against other teams, and that his presence at the offensive end forces Cleveland's defense into double-and-scramble mode.
That said, the Cavs retain the ultimate trump card -- the ability to play LeBron James all 48 minutes -- and no matter how well the Magic match up, they still face a daunting task in winning at least once in a building where the Cavs are 43-1 in games that mean something.
That's why I took the Cavs in five, and I'm sticking with that pick. But if the Magic make it interesting, those regular-season meetings hold the clue as to why.
Edited by #24, May 21, 2009 - 07:19 AM.