In a rematch of last season’s Eastern Conference finals, perhaps the most intrigue surrounds two players that weren’t even a part of the series.
Cleveland (4-3) was the top seed in the Eastern Conference last season, but was ousted in six games by Orlando (6-2), which went on to fall in five games to the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA finals.
Looking to take care of that problem, Cleveland traded for O’Neal in June and he insisted the Cavaliers would no longer need to double-team Howard. While coach Mike Brown wasn’t committing to O’Neal’s game plan, he was hoping for a better outcome.
“They’re a very good, well-coached team that presented problems for us (last year),” he said. “Hopefully it will be different this year.”
O’Neal, then with Phoenix, and Howard faced each other once last season. Howard had 19 points in Orlando’s 111-99 home win on March 3, but he was held to only seven rebounds - his second-lowest total.
“He’s young, agile and active,” O’Neal said, “but nothing I haven’t seen before.”
Howard guided the Magic to NBA finals for the first time since 1994-95 when they were led by a younger and much more dominant O’Neal. While Howard may be surpassing Shaq’s legacy in Orlando, O’Neal was less than complimentary of the Magic star over the summer.
“I can’t be impressed by something I invented,” O’Neal said. “I mean, you look at what he is doing, I’ve been there and done that. Every street he is driving down in Orlando, I have been on that street. Every nightclub, every restaurant - I have been there and done that.”
O’Neal has had some trouble fitting in with Cleveland’s system, but the Cavaliers appear pleased with how it’s working.
He played 19 minutes in a 100-91 victory over New York on Friday, finishing with seven points and four rebounds. Cleveland held a double-digit lead for most of that game, which may have contributed to his lack of playing time.
Despite the series loss to the Magic, James put up big numbers by averaging 38.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and eight assists. Including playoff games, however, the Cavaliers have lost six straight and eight of nine in Orlando.
After falling by 28 to Oklahoma City on Sunday, the Magic bounced back with a 93-81 victory at Charlotte on Tuesday. Howard finished with 15 points, 10 rebounds and six assists while Carter made a surprise return from a sore left ankle to finish with 15 points off the bench.
Carter - Orlando’s big offseason acquisition - had missed four of the previous five games and didn’t think he’d be able to play after not participating in the morning’s shootaround. He was feeling better later in the day, however, and asked if he could come off the bench for only the eighth time in 781 career games.
“I got here and I was doing the (scouting) board and Vince came in and said he was going to give it a shot,” coach Stan Van Gundy said. “I was totally surprised.”
Carter averaged 19.0 points against the Cavaliers last season while with New Jersey, but shot only 37.5 percent in those games.