Although the Cleveland Cavaliers posted the best regular season record in the NBA and swept through the first two rounds of the playoffs in record-setting fashion, some people believe that the Orlando Magic will pose a very difficult challenge for the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals.
TNT’s Charles Barkley has already gone on record predicting an Orlando victory, asserting that the Magic match up well with the Cavs and have a more versatile offensive attack with Dwight Howard in the paint surrounded by three point shooters. Throw in the fact that Orlando won the season series 2-1—including a 116-87 blowout—and just dethroned the defending champion Celtics by winning game seven in Boston and there seem to be legitimate reasons to think that the Magic can beat the Cavs. However, if one looks at this series objectively then it becomes evident that the Cavs should definitely be considered clear favorites.
LeBron James, the 2009 NBA MVP, is the best individual player on either team. James is a two-way player who has eliminated every one of his skill set weaknesses—defense, free throw shooting, three point shooting–except for his midrange jump shot, which can still be erratic at times.
It is a difficult task to keep James out of the paint and he is also a top notch rebounder and playmaker. Unless one team enjoys a marked superiority in overall talent/depth, the team with the best individual player is probably going to win a seven game series, because that player is capable of taking over a crucial game, particularly on the road.
Orlando’s best player is Dwight Howard, who made the All-NBA First Team and won the Defensive Player of the Year award (James finished second). Howard is a dominant rebounder and shotblocker but he will neither overpower defenders on the block a la a young Shaquille O’Neal nor does he possess the nimble footwork and deft shooting touch of Hakeem Olajuwon.
Therefore, Howard can be contained by a solid post defender who forces him to catch the ball outside of the paint; it is not necessary or desirable to double-team Howard unless/until he puts the ball on the floor and gets into the paint but Howard is not a great passer or ballhandler so if he is trapped on the move he can be forced into turning the ball over or taking a low percentage shot (which is just about anything other than a dunk in his case).
The Cavs have the necessary frontcourt depth, savvy and discipline to employ such a strategy, which means that their perimeter defenders can stay at home on Orlando’s deadly three point shooters. Look for James to have a much more pronounced impact on this series than Howard does.
The Cavs enjoy homecourt advantage in this series and that is a very significant factor considering that the Cavs went 39-2 at home—and one of those losses came in the final regular season game, when the Cavs had already clinched homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs and their reserves still almost beat a Philadelphia team that was trying to win in order to possibly improve their playoff seeding. Orlando’s game seven victory in Boston is impressive but beating an injury-depleted Celtics team is not at all the same thing as beating a fully-loaded Cavs team with LeBron James leading the charge.
What about the head to head series, including that 29 point beatdown? You can throw the first regular season meeting out the window: the Magic still had All-Star point guard Jameer Nelson—who later suffered a season-ending injury—while the Cavs were without the services of injured starters Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Delonte West and had yet to reacquire Joe Smith, who currently ranks sixth on the team in playoff minutes. In the second meeting, both teams had their current rosters largely intact and the Cavs won at home, 97-93. The third meeting—easily Cleveland’s worse loss of the season in terms of point differential—is a little easier to understand in light of the fact that it was the second of back to back road games and the third game in four nights for the Cavs, while the Magic had the benefit of a day off after playing a home game. This is what is known in NBA circles as a “scheduling loss”—if you stumble into a tough arena for your third game in four nights it is very difficult to beat a good team. Cleveland Coach Mike Brown realized exactly what has happening in that game, which is why no Cav played more than 32 minutes.
The foundation for Cleveland’s success is built on defense, rebounding and LeBron James’ brilliance. The addition of All-Star point guard Mo Williams has established yet another firm building block in that foundation but while many people have talked about Williams’ importance I still don’t think that the general public—and even some so-called experts—fully appreciate just how deep this Cleveland team really is.
Real experts—guys like former NBA coaches turned commentators Hubie Brown and Mike Fratello—have emphasized this point during telecasts of Cleveland’s playoff games: not only do the Cavs have a potent and versatile starting lineup but their bench is loaded with players who have been starters for playoff teams—either in Cleveland (Sasha Pavlovic, Daniel Gibson) or elsewhere (Ben Wallace, Joe Smith,Wally Szczerbiak)—yet those players understand and accept their current roles. The Magic cannot match the Cavs in terms of depth or playoff experience.
Game one on Wednesday night at the Q will revisit the classic “rest/rust” issue: will the Cavs be well rested after having so much time off between series or will they be rusty? The answer most likely will be “yes” on both counts; the Cavs may show some signs of rust—particularly in terms of shooting or their timing on certain plays—but veterans like Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Ben Wallace will benefit from the rest.
By the second half at the latest any signs of “rust” will likely have disappeared and the Cavs should be in good position to take a 1-0 lead; I expect the Cavs to win this series in five games, six at the most.