LeBron James authored one of the epochal single game performances in NBA playoff history–49 points on 20-30 field goal shooting, eight assists, six rebounds, three blocked shots, two steals–but the Orlando Magic erased a 16 point lead to steal homecourt advantage with a 107-106 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers in game one of the Eastern Conference Finals. The Cavs fell to 4-2 when James scores 40-plus points in a playoff game, the only other loss coming in game seven of last year’s Eastern Conference semifinals versus Boston.
Dwight Howard led the Magic with 30 points on 14-20 field goal shooting and a game-high 13 rebounds; he also caused a nine minute delay at the 11:00 mark of the first quarter when his vicious two hand putback dunk separated the shot clock from its moorings above the hoop. Eventually, the decision was made to simply turn off the shot clock over the opposite hoop, place one shot clock on the floor on each baseline and then replace the damaged shot clock at halftime.
Howard, the Defensive Player of the Year, did not record a blocked shot but he was called for goaltending three times and, ironically, had his own shot blocked four times. Rashard Lewis finished with 22 points and seven rebounds and he hit the game-winning three pointer with :14.7 remaining in the fourth quarter. Hedo Turkoglu tallied 15 points, a playoff career-high 14 assists and six rebounds.
Turkoglu is Orlando’s Mr. Fourth Quarter and that proved to be the case in this game as he scored nine points and dished off for seven assists in the final stanza, outdueling James, who had 10 points and two assists in the fourth quarter. Mickael Pietrus contributed 13 points off of the bench, while starting point guard Rafer Alston had a solid game (11 points, eight assists, one turnover). J.J. Redick, who was Orlando’s starting shooting guard in the previous series versus Boston, received a DNP-CD (Did Not Play–Coach’s Decision) because there is not a suitable defensive matchup for him.
Depth has a been a major strength for Cleveland this year but that was not the case in this game. Mo Williams had 17 points and five assists but he shot just 6-19 from the field. His backcourt partner Delonte West got off to a good start with six first quarter points but he finished with 11 points and six assists, shooting just 4-13 from the field. Anderson Varejao (14 points on 6-8 shooting, six rebounds) and Zydrunas Ilgauskas (10 points on 5-11 shooting, 10 rebounds) had solid games but the Cavs got just five points from their bench, all of them scored by Joe Smith.
James was the last Cavs starter to score but after he nailed a jumper at the 3:42 mark of the first quarter the Cavs already led 23-14 and it certainly seemed like their versatility and depth would be the headline story of this game. Instead, James became the focal point of the offense while ball and player movement slowly but inexorably ground to a halt. Initially, this one dimensional offensive attack proved to be effective because James made virtually every shot he took and the Cavs held the Magic to just 2-7 three point shooting in the first half. Thus, even though Howard broke loose for 18 first half points on 8-11 shooting, the Magic fell further and further behind; James scored 26 points in the final 15:42 of the first half to set a franchise record for points in one half of a playoff game and the Cavs led 63-48 at halftime after Williams hit a three quarter court shot to beat the buzzer.
In the third quarter, the Magic chipped away at the lead while the Cavs missed long jumpers and committed careless turnovers. The Cavs surprised the Magic in the first half by matching up James versus point guard Rafer Alston while West checked Turkoglu, echoing a favorite Phil Jackson strategy of putting a big defender on the opposing point guard in order to disrupt the other team’s offensive flow (the Cavs have done this before with James, most notably by putting him on Chauncey Billups in the playoffs a couple years ago). Orlando Coach Stan Van Gundy countered this move by going to more screen and roll sets with Turkoglu and this made Cleveland Coach Mike Brown adjust by putting James back on Turkoglu, the natural forward-forward matchup. It will be interesting to follow this game of chess between the two coaches as the series progresses; in this game, the Cavs never found an effective answer for the Turkoglu-Howard screen/roll play and that is why Turkoglu racked up so many assists down the stretch.
Cleveland was clinging to an 82-78 at the end of the third quarter when James went to the bench for a brief rest. After Anthony Johnson’s three pointer at the 10:06 mark of the fourth quarter gave the Magic their first lead of the game (85-84), the Cavs called a timeout and put James back in the game. Neither team led by more than four points the rest of the way. James drove to the hoop and kicked the ball to West for a three pointer with :40.8 remaining to put the Cavs up 103-102 but Lewis answered with a jumper to make the score 104-103. James converted a three point play to give Cleveland a 106-104 lead with :25.6 remaining; Howard fouled out on that play, so all the Cavs needed to do was guard the three point line and the worst case scenario would have been an overtime session with Howard on the bench. The Magic called timeout and ran a play for Lewis to drive to the hoop; the Cavs stopped his dribble penetration but Lewis gave the ball up and popped back out behind the three point line, where he received a pass from Turkoglu, jab stepped and drilled a three pointer over Varejao. It is hard to understand why Varejao reacted to Lewis’ fake, because the three point shot was the only thing that could kill the Cavs at that time.
On the Cavs’ final possession, James drove to the hoop but the Magic trapped him and forced him to pass the ball to Williams, who swung it to West for a three pointer from the same spot on the left baseline where West had just drained a trey but this time he missed and James and Turkoglu ended up in a jump ball situation with just one second left. The Cavs had no timeouts remaining–in part because they burned some of them earlier in the quarter to give James some rest because he was cramping up. James won the tip and directed the ball to Williams, whose last second fling was off the mark.
Before the game, Van Gundy told the assembled media that the Magic are a very “resilient” team and he echoed that point in his postgame press conference, stressing that his team stayed focused and did not try to make up the large early deficit all at once. Van Gundy candidly admitted that he has no answer about how to guard James and although he acknowledged that Orlando’s tough series versus Boston helped to prepare his team to face adversity in this series he said that the bottom line is “you got to put the ball in the basket. We want to make it all these other things, who wants it more, all the psychological stuff, my coaching, everything else…Rashard put the ball in the basket, now I’m really good.”
Someone asked Howard about Van Gundy’s halftime speech and Howard revealed that Van Gundy told the Magic that they were all playing like “witnesses,” a reference to one of LeBron James’ advertising campaigns. Howard said that this message “really motivated us…brought some fire out of us.” Howard also admitted that his team drew some extra motivation from the way that most outsiders considers the Magic to be underdogs in this series.
Coach Brown lamented that his team’s offense became so stagnant and said that defensively he and the coaching staff will have to look at the film to come up with some answers for the Magic’s screen/roll game. He also offered an upbeat message: “That’s why this is a series. A series is not won nor lost after one game. I have confidence in our guys. I trust our guys. We’ll be ready for game two.”
Brown and James consistently offer the same public message on a variety of subjects–including that one–so whether this is simply a case of two people thinking alike or James wholeheartedly buying into his coach’s philosophy it is very clear that Brown and James share the same perspective (something that is not always true of Van Gundy and Howard, as we saw during Orlando’s series with Boston, though both men claim to have patched up their differences).
James and Williams came to the postgame press conference together (as did Howard and Lewis previously). James has a remarkable ability to analyze a game like a coach; many players would say that in order to win this game the Cavs just needed to make open shots but James declared, “A team shooting 55 percent on our court in a game is unacceptable for all of us. We know that. That’s not how we play basketball and that’s not how we are going to win. We should have lost giving a team 55 percent from the field.” Obviously, Coach Brown will have an easy time preaching defense prior to game two, because his best player has made it very clear that the Cavs must improve in this area; I recall hearing a lot of excuses after various Phoenix Suns’ playoff losses in recent years but I don’t ever remember hearing Steve Nash or Shaquille O’Neal admitting that they had to play better defense.
Then James did something even more remarkable, taking the blame for his team’s stagnant offense despite the fact that he scored 49 points on .667 field goal shooting: “Offensively we were stagnant at times, maybe because I felt the hot hand. I got back to the one-on-one play that I had in the past. But I felt I had it going individually. But we only had five turnovers as a team. It is not like we were not playing basketball the right way. We missed some really good shots…We shot 48 percent from the field, so for the most part that’s a pretty good game when you have 19 assists and only five turnovers.”
James assessed Cleveland’s offensive performance exactly like a coach would: the team shot reasonably well and took care of the ball, yet it is undeniable that there should have been more ball and player movement in the second half, even though James shot an outstanding percentage from the field. However, Williams was not about to let James shoulder the responsibility for the offensive problems: “I want to add to that last one. I don’t think that him going one-on-one was a factor. I think he had it going. That’s part of our offense, for him to attack his man. I think the key–the key–the biggest key to the game was myself…I have to take pressure off that guy. I’m looking at the stats and I’m looking at Dwight and I’m looking at Rashard and I’m looking at Hedo and those three guys were terrific tonight. And I look at myself, 6-19, LeBron is 20-30 from the field. I don’t care, he can go one-on-one all he wants. I got 19 shots still. It wasn’t him.”
The Cavs’ roster consists of grown men who don’t make excuses and who take personal responsibility for their performances and that kind of character and professionalism are hallmarks of championship teams.
By winning game one in Cleveland the Magic seized homecourt advantage and that is a significant accomplishment. We know that roughly 80% of game one winners go on to win the series but we also just saw the Lakers drop game one to Houston and come back to win that series in seven games; when the team with homecourt advantage loses game one that team has a much better chance of coming back than when the underdog team loses game one so, as James correctly noted in his postgame remarks, the Cavs should not feel or act like the world is caving in on them. People who predicted an Orlando series victory may feel smug at the moment but the reality is that game one provided plenty of fodder no matter which team you picked: for the first 24 minutes the Cavs showed that they could single cover Howard and build a sizable lead by withstanding his onslaught while shutting everyone else down; then in the second 24 minutes the Magic adjusted, found their three point shooting stroke and eked out a narrow win. A game that was decided in the final seconds can hardly be cited as definitive proof of one team’s superiority.
The Cavs are a defensive-minded team that rarely blows leads or loses at home, so one could either view this game as an aberration or as the start of a disturbing trend (we’ll know the correct answer in a few days). The Cavs’ offense became stagnant and they suffered some uncharacteristic defensive breakdowns. Which came first? It is hard to say, because when your defense breaks down you have to inbound the ball and score against an entrenched defense and when your offense breaks down the opposing team often gets opportunities to score in transition, so this is a classic chicken/egg conundrum. It is easy to pull out isolated numbers and make bold statements such as “The Cavs needed 49 points from James just to stay close, so the Magic will roll the rest of the series because he cannot keep up that pace” or “The Magic rely too heavily on three pointers/jump shooting, so they are bound to lose some games when their shots don’t drop” but the reality is that each playoff game is a separate entity. James may not score 49 points again in this series, but Howard may also not keep making the running shots that he hit in the lane and Turkoglu most likely will not have another 14 assist outing. Barring key injuries, the best team will win a seven game series and I still believe that Cleveland will prevail due to defense, depth, rebounding and LeBron James’ individual brilliance, though the exact balance of that formula will shift from game to game.
Notes From Courtside:
In his pregame press conference, Van Gundy explained that Courtney Lee would take over J.J. Redick’s spot in the starting lineup due to matchup considerations, primarily because Lee is a better defender off of the dribble than Redick is, though Van Gundy hastened to mention that Redick is a “tough, disciplined competitor who makes very few mistakes.” Redick’s weakness, according to Van Gundy, is defending quick guards off of the dribble but Van Gundy said that Redick has made great strides defensively and has also improved his passing skills as well. I agree that Redick has improved in both areas and this indicates that he has worked on his game but despite Van Gundy’s laudable effort to praise his player while benching him the reality is that if a former lottery pick has such glaring deficiencies in his game that he cannot even get on the court for one minute in the Conference Finals then that is a significant indictment of that player’s skill set, no matter how one chooses to spin the situation.
Coach Brown said during his pregame press conference that he anticipated that Lee would replace Redick in the starting lineup, though Brown told the media that he expected that Lee would guard LeBron James in order to keep Turkoglu out of foul trouble. Brown said that the keys for the Cavs during this series would be floor balance and shot selection on offense, while on defense the Cavs must run back to bodies in transition as opposed to simply sagging into the paint. In other words, defenders must pick up shooters at the three point line, even if that shooter is not your assigned man. James evidently heard that message loud and clear, because when he was interviewed separately just moments later he mentioned that bigs like Ilgauskas may have to cross match and pick up somebody like Lewis in transition in order to prevent Lewis from shooting a quick three pointer.
James’ pregame standup was dominated by questions from ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, so you probably have already seen those questions and answers on SportsCenter. It took a couple tries to get a word in edgewise–Duane Rankin of the Erie Times, who was standing next to me, whispered, “Keep asking,” perhaps not realizing that I am a stubborn person who would have done so even without his encouragement–but I finally got James’ attention (it helps to be tall, at least for a non-NBA player, and to have a voice that projects very well even without a microphone) and asked him, “What was your impression of the game last night, the shootout between Kobe and Carmelo?”
James replied, “Well, it really wasn’t a shootout. I thought that it was a great game. I look at it as a missed opportunity for the Nuggets. They pretty much–they played a great game but a few possessions down the stretch just didn’t go their way. So, the Lakers team is a really good team and it was great to see Melo and what he was able to do. He is definitely growing as a basketball player and of course Kobe did what he does every night, so it was a great game for a fan.”
I then asked him, “Did Carmelo change defensively from playing on the Olympic team and seeing some of the great defensive players on that team? We have never really seen him play defense the way that he did last night against Kobe.”
James answered, “He just took the challenge, man. Like I said (earlier in this interview session), there are just four teams left and you have to do whatever you need to do to win. During the regular season, some guys may not feel the need to play defense at a high level–I don’t know why.” James smiled as he said that and it is evident that he is convinced that it is important to play defense at a high level all of the time, even if some of his peers don’t share that belief. He then continued, “Right now there are four teams and you have to win eight games to win the whole thing. This is no time to be resting. Resting is for July, August, September and a little bit of October, too.”