Two of the NBA’s elite will square off for the first time this season on Thursday night at Amway Arena, where the Cavaliers will look to build off Mo Williams’ career night as they face a Magic team that had eight players score in double-figures their last time out.
Howard and James are two of the league’s biggest stars, and the former No. 1 overall draft picks have already received their fair share of accolades.
They shared an Olympic gold-medal podium last summer in Beijing, but since coming back have an NBA title in mind, and they’re on the right track. The Cavaliers (35-8) have the league’s best overall record and the Magic (34-10) are the NBA’s top road team at 17-6.
The superstars came through in typical fashion on Tuesday - Howard with his league-leading 34th double-double, and James had 23 points, 15 rebounds and 11 assists for his 20th career triple-double.
Seven of James’ assists went to Williams, who torched Sacramento for a career-high 43 points while nearly compiling his own triple-double. Williams, who James feels should be one of seven Eastern All-Star reserves that will be announced Thursday night, added 11 assists and eight rebounds in Cleveland’s 117-110 victory.
“He deserves it,” said James, a two-time All-Star MVP. “Look at our record. Look at the way he’s playing. … I’ll be really disappointed because he’s part of the reason we’ve played the way we have, and he’s put up the numbers.”
Howard, meanwhile, averages 13.8 rebounds to tie for the league lead, but it’s been the shooters around him that have made Orlando a contender.
The Magic are the league’s top 3-point shooting team, connecting on 40.2 percent from beyond the arc. Four regulars shoot at least 41.0 percent.
They had one of their best efforts yet from outside on Tuesday. Rashard Lewis, whose 129 3-pointers lead the NBA, made four of Orlando’s 15, but neither he nor Howard led the team in scoring. It was Mickael Pietrus, out the previous 12 games with a broken right wrist, who scored 27 points while grabbing 10 rebounds in a 135-111 rout of Indiana.
“I still have my shot. That didn’t go anywhere,” Pietrus said. “I didn’t leave it at home. I came back aggressive and with plenty of energy. I was rested and ready to come back.”
While Williams (17.2 points per game) has made a compelling case to be an All-Star, so has Orlando point guard Jameer Nelson, who has upped his scoring average six points to 16.9 per game while shooting 50.4 percent.
“So far, I’ve had a good season,” Nelson said. “I mean whether it’s an All-Star season is to be determined by everybody else.”
The Magic certainly impressed another player likely to be in Phoenix for the All-Star game with their performance on Tuesday as Indiana’s Danny Granger called Orlando “the best team in the East.”
Cleveland might disagree, and it’ll hope to get even better before the week is over. The Cavaliers are expecting two-time All-Star center Zydrunas Ilgauskas back from a fractured ankle soon, though he’s listed as doubtful against Orlando after originally targeting Thursday to return.
The Magic have won four of five against Cleveland and six of eight overall. James, however, nearly averaged a triple-double against Orlando last season - 28.8 points, 9.8 assists and 9.0 rebounds.