Orlando 107, Cleveland 106 (Orlando leads series, 1-0)
What an odd, truly entertaining, and utterly fascinating game. And not really all that "odd," when you think about it.
Just a brilliant Game 1 that was sandwiched into a frustrating lack of purpose on Orlando's end to start things, and a crushing relapse offensively from a Cavs team that, this far along, should know better.
And, as mentioned, LeBron James'(notes) towering performance (49 points on 20 of 30 shooting, six rebounds, three blocks, two steals, only two turnovers, wow, and eight assists) and Orlando's sensational comeback and hold shouldn't be construed as odd, even if in the moment things might have felt a little off kilter.
Things did start on a sour note. I don't know what happened to Orlando since Sunday night, but they in no way resembled the team that led the NBA in defensive efficiency, or defensively stuck it to the Cavs several times during the regular season.
Not only did Cleveland's gambit of isolating LeBron work, but Orlando's traps never trapped. They never had their head on a swivel, and while it's hard to break muscle and mental memory after seeing the Celtics play for seven consecutive games, this start was pretty bad. Annoyingly bad. And enough to dig a game-deciding hole.
Cleveland had over 40 points 14 minutes into the game, and that's a shocking number for a team that still struggles to score sometimes, going up against the NBA's top defensive outfit. And most of that has to be pegged on Orlando's disinterest on doing what needed to be done to funnel the Cavs into the right places. Throw in a rash of early turnovers, and Cleveland is on pace to drop 140 points.
James was amazing, no doubt. Picking off Cavs with passes early on, then getting his feet wet in transition, then taking advantage of the dribble pull-up game once he discovered that his shot was there. Uh-oh.
For the Cavs, uh-oh. It was scary and frustrating for the Magic while James was hitting, but Cavs fans (with memories of the 2006 Eastern Conference semis in their head), should have known better.
You can't rely on that shot. You can if you're relying on Ray Allen(notes) or Reggie Miller, I guess, but Miller never 20-footed his way toward the Finals alone. He only made it that far as part of a better ensemble. Allen, as we saw in the last series, can't be trusted as the continual go-to guy when others are down. He, like last year, has to be part of an ensemble. It's like relying on Dave Kingman in the three spot of your order.
LeBron James will never be part of any ensemble, at least not any time soon, because you'd be wasting his talents if he were. So, if he is the go-to guy, ball in hands, he has to mix it up. He never did. Face up, maybe a dribble, swish. 20 feet. 21 feet. 25 feet. It was awesome to watch, he truly is a marvel, and it was quite the show. Possibly the best we've ever seen him play.
But you can't rely on it. And once the shots started missing from long range, the Magic were well on their way back.
And once James realized he had to drive, and the Magic were playing him for that drive and mucking up the lane for him, as we saw during the regular season, it fell on his teammates to start hitting shots. And they missed. Mo Williams(notes) hit one, Delonte West(notes) hit one, but that was about it. And with the Magic getting better and better offensively, the comeback was complete. Home court advantage, gone. Fo'-fo'-fo' hopes? Dashed.
The question that all the analysts get asked in this
scenario is, "could you see this coming,
when the Magic were down 16?"
Well, no. Of course not. The only thing you can see coming is for one team to continue to play at the pace they're playing at, and the other team to do the same. So, a 30-point blowout.
But what you can see is why a comeback like this could happen, even when Orlando enters the second half down 15. That's why, when things start to get normal (LeBron doesn't shoot 80 percent from 20 feet; Orlando isn't the worst defensive team in the NBA), the comeback is in place. And before things get normal, you can see what it would take for the comeback to take place. Little stuff. Orlando could hang onto the ball. The defense can tighten up. Cleveland's iffy perimeter attack, currently hot, could run cold.
That's why this insistence on winning by tossing in low percentage 20-footers is the ultimate pound-foolish move. Compare that to the Lakers, who went early and often to either Kobe Bryant(notes) and (eventually) Pau Gasol(notes) in the post in Game 1. Kobe missed a ton of leaners and short shots, and Gasol missed a few hooks. But the motion was set. The movement was there, and the offense eventually warmed up to a fever pitch, instead of starting white hot and fizzling from there. Penny-foolish, pound-wise. Win-wise.
And the Magic, finally, got it right. Offensively, as well. The defense returned to the norm. What we expected, from mid-way through the second quarter (even though the Cavs were still piling it on at that point) until the end.
The offense? There were some leaps and bounds, here.
Problem is, Lewis isn't nearly aggressive enough. He doesn't understand -- or does understand, and is too timid to act upon this knowledge -- that a somewhat contested three-pointer taken over and over again still has a 40 percent success rate for this guy, and that he's helping his team in the long run if he takes it.
And on Wednesday, he took those shots. He also took tough baseline jumpers out of time outs, and benefitted from some Ray Allen-style curl action. It was great to see. I wish it had started in the first half, but he did finish with 22 points on only 13 shots, and in spite of Dwight Howard's(notes) massive play on both ends and Hedo Turkoglu's(notes) all-around brilliance, Lewis was what put Orlando over the top.
Not "the best player," mind you; just someone that the Cavs couldn't counter when it mattered, plying a type of trade that despite the typical line (22 points on a good shooting mark, seven rebounds), was much, much different from the style that we've seen him work for years.
And if the Magic want to win, he has to keep it up. Has to. No way around it.
Howard, as mentioned, was fantastic. Getting his timing right, his act all tight, he absorbed a bit of contact, worked his angles well, and got off good shots with his back to the basket.
He tossed in his usual five offensive rebounds (13 overall) with the 30 points, but don't think this was his Typical Tip-Dunk Funfest, 2009. He was scoring in the post. Scoring in the post, and they weren't lucky rolls. Scoring like a fluid big man. A couple of lobs (including a Patrick Ewing-style reverse) and some put-backs, but otherwise, scoring in the post. What's up, Ryan.
Turkoglu was great. 14 assists. Stirring the drink, eating the pizza pie. Winking at people, too, a few times. Did you see that?
Other, little, thoughts on the Magic? Courtney Lee(notes) gave Orlando nothing offensively, but he did play good D and throw one down on LeBron James. Although I did expect James to remark, Larry Bird-style, "what is that, two points now?" afterwards.
Howard's last foul wasn't a foul. I haven't liked the career works of any of the referees scheduled to work this game, and my low expectations weren't even met. Poorly, poorly called game. I'll let you look up who they are, because I think the two younger ones actually enjoy looking themselves up on search engines to see nasty things written about them.
Cleveland? You don't change the starting lineup, not after a 15-point loss, much less a one-point loss. But they are going to have to go smaller for longer stretches, with more James at power forward. Ben Wallace(notes) and Anderson Varejao(notes) out there to guard Orlando's final offensive possession was ridiculous, and you could smell fail even before the Magic in-bounded the ball, and gave it Rashard Lewis for the game-winner.
If Lewis is going to wake up, 11 years after being drafted, and continue to play like this, then you can't get away with Varejao, Wally Szczerbiak(notes), and Joe Smith(notes) guarding him for stretches, even if only one possession.
Delonte West and Mo Williams, ideally, would improve upon their combined 10-32 mark from the floor, but they were also defended very, very well. And some of the shots they hit (Mo in particular) were tough looks. So, we'll see.
I have to say, there's some history behind this. A lot of teams of Cleveland's caliber have had the home court surprisingly taken away from them by a team with less talent, but boasting plenty of matchup issues. Hell, Cleveland took it away from Chicago back in 1992 in the same round, and nobody remembers that 17 years later, because the Bulls stormed on to win the championship, and Michael Jordan made a funny face in front of the NBC cameras.
And if the Cavs turn it around and move on from here, few will remember this loss.
But this isn't a fluke. I picked the Magic to win in six and I meant it, but I wouldn't blink if the Cavs peeled off four straight wins to move on. They're that good, and teams can still grow by huge leaps even as they're playing their 92nd game of the season. We saw some of that, a lot of that, from the Magic in Game 1.
That's just the beauty of this entire thing, something that I'm absolutely in love with right now. We watched the Cavs and Magic go at it all year, saw the ins and outs of each team through heaps of regular season games and a month's worth of playoff action, and things are still changing before our very eyes.
The template has been set, make no mistake, but the outcome is very much in question. Both teams could roll from here on out, or we could see six more games like we saw tonight.
Beautiful, I think.