You've heard my prediction — Cavaliers in 6 — and KD reads his tea leaves below, but, like usual, we also called in some of the NBA blogosphere's finest to help set up the Eastern Conference finals. On deck: "CavsBlogger" from Fear The Sword and Ben Q. Rock from Third Quarter Collapse breakdown the Cleveland-Orlando series.
Fear The Sword: This is going to be fun. Yes, it is true that many Cavaliers fans wanted to avoid this matchup, mostly those who have jumped on the bandwagon lately and use nothing but what happened during the regular season as their guide. Me? I wanted this series. Not out of cockiness, or because I think the Magic are a soft team. Far from it. I thought Orlando was the 2nd best team in the East most of the season, and they definitely were after Kevin Garnett(notes) got hurt. This is how it should be, the two best teams in the Eastern Conference battling it out with a trip to the Finals at stake. It won’t be easy, and it shouldn’t be.
The pleasantries aside, this is a series the Cavaliers should win. They should win it because they have played the entire season to get to this point. They should win it because they have home court and they were the best home-court team in the NBA. They should win it because the playoffs are the time the superstars shine, and the Cavaliers possess the brightest star of all. Most of all, they should win it because they have been here, and the Magic haven’t. The NBA, more than any other League, is all about taking baby steps. Teams have to go through each of these steps, each phase of growth, to get to the next one. The Cavaliers were in The Finals in 2007 and took the NBA Champion (Boston) to the brink of extinction last year. The disappointment of both of those failures have fueled this run. A run to 74 wins in 90 games.
The Cavaliers have been dominant to this point in the playoffs, despite the belief that they have yet to be tested. Sure, the Pistons and Hawks aren’t the best the NBA has to offer, but to hold both of those teams under 85 points for 8 straight games is still a feat. It is that defensive approach that will be the difference in the series.
The Cavaliers are as healthy as they have been all season. They are rested, and their superstar is hungry. Ben Wallace(notes), now filling a role coming off the bench, will make things difficult in the paint for Dwight Howard(notes), and Anderson Varejao(notes) will do his best to get under his skin. Howard is intimidating, and as good as The Polish Hammer has been, the Cavaliers would be wise to attack Howard in an attempt to get him out of the game. With Varejao, Wallace and Joe Smith(notes), the Cavs have the depth to do the job. Yes, Rashard Lewis(notes) is a mismatch, but the Cavaliers have the benefit of putting LeBron on whomever they want in the 4th quarter to effectively take that player out of the game. Whether it is Hedo, or Lewis, or even Howard, LeBron has been a stopper all year.
LeBron is going to do his thing, and Howard will do his. The difference, then, to me is the back-court. Mo Willams and Delonte West(notes) against Rafer Alston(notes) and Courtney Lee(notes). Look at the box score after each game, and the team that wins will likely have the back-court that performed better. That is where the Cavaliers have the advantage. Williams, West, and even Wally Szczerbiak(notes) can go off at any point. Rafer Alston is a nice player, but he is what he is — Skip-To-My-Lou from the And-1 tour.
There is just something about a super star when his time has come. This has been my mantra all season — It's Time. This will be the biggest test of the playoffs, but in the end, the Cavaliers get it done because they know what it takes.
Cavs in 6.
Third Quarter Collapse: Perhaps no bandwagon in the NBA has seen bigger peaks or valleys, in terms of attendance, than that of the Orlando Magic. Beat the Lakers, Spurs, and Nuggets in succession on the road? Bandwagon full. Lose Jameer Nelson(notes) to a season-ending shoulder injury? Bandwagon empties. Acquire Rafer Alston at the trading deadline and start winning again? Bandwagon fills up. Blow a 14-point lead to the Boston Celtics in Game 5 of the Eastern Semis? Bandwagon empties. Beat the Celtics on their home floor in Game 7? Looks like it’s filling up now. Again.
Unfortunately, this is where I have to get off. For all the problems the Magic gave the Cleveland Cavaliers, their Conference Finals opponent, in the regular season, Cleveland appears to have taken its game to another level.
Believe me, I understand why some people, including TNT analyst Charles Barkley, are picking the Magic to win this series. Orlando has been able to keep LeBron James(notes) out of the paint, while also holding the likes of Mo Williams(notes) and Delonte West to well below their season averages. The Magic have also managed to shoot well from three-point range against Cleveland, which led the league in three-point defense this season. To me, the Magic are the toughest out left on the Cavs' schedule.
But it's not going to matter. Cleveland is just too good to pick against right now. It's 8-0 this postseason, with each win coming by double-digits. James, already the best player on the planet, has brought his game to new heights. Meanwhile, the Magic have needed 13 games just to get to this point. And James' presence would appear to negate any advantage Dwight Howard and Rashard Lewis give them. He's too good.
I expect a tough series, and the Magic could conceivably pull off the upset if they win one of the first two games in Cleveland. They play much better with the odds stacked against them, which is something to consider. Ultimately, though, James and the well-rested Cavs should come out on top.
Cavs in 6.
Kelly Dwyer: At the heart of both of these teams — and it pains me a bit to say this — is inconsistency.
To be fair, we're hardly dealing with the Hawks or 76ers here. The Cavaliers were pretty spot-on throughout the entire season save for a few games where they looked as if they'd be lucky to score 14 in a quarter. And some of those games were saved by a hot touch from LeBron James from the outside, a touch that defines the word "inconsistent." What happens should the touch leave and the unlucky take over? And what if it happened to, um, happen four times in seven games?
I think that's well within the realm of the possible. Throw in Dwight Howard's defensive presence, and the Cavs are up against a huge, huge test. I don't say this lightly, and I'm not tossing this out to act the contrarian or ignore what is clearly the more talented team in Cleveland.
On Orlando's side, the same inconsistency reigns. The D doesn't let up (which has a lot to do with my guess, and it is a guess, as to who wins this series), but the smart decisions on offense often do. And while they kept it together for most of the season, that end to the initial 82-game run was a bit unnerving, as was their path to the Conference finals, in spite of the impressive Game 7 win on Sunday.
So many questions abound. Cleveland is lights out at home, and Orlando isn't. So writing something like "one bad offensive game on either Wednesday or Friday, and this series is Orlando's to lose" just doesn't make sense, because Orlando can and will lose at home. Then again, I can't get the image of the Cavs clanging away offensively, with the Cavs unable to cope because they haven't been challenged all year save for one night stands (usually losses) against the Lakers, Magic, or Celtics.
You shouldn't read anything into any of these predictions, Cavs or Magic, because we just don't know how either team will react to one another at this point. And we're saying this in May! Just enjoy the crazy.
Magic in 6.
Also see: Western Conference finals preview