Otis Smith is the real Executive of the Year

All due respect to Denver’s Mark Warkentien, who won the 2009 NBA Executive of the Year Award, but Orlando GM Otis Smith deserves the honor. This is the problem with how the league hands out these awards at the end of the regular season — there’s no way to take the playoffs into account. Granted, it’s a regular season award, but in that case, wouldn’t Danny Ferry deserve it for pulling the trigger on the Mo Williams trade, which led to an All-Star nod for the guard and a 66-win season? Mitch Kupchak also deserves mention for his theft of Pau Gasol (now a year and a half old) along with mining Trevor Ariza and Shannon Brown from other team’s benches.

Of course, Warkentien pulled arguably the best in-season move by sending Allen Iverson to Detroit for Chauncey Billups, which gave the Nuggets the toughness and defensive intensity to go from a Western Conference also-ran to a legitimate contender. I didn’t like his decision to give away Marcus Camby last summer in a salary dump, but in his defense, his signing of Chris Andersen offset that loss. Still, it would have been nice to have Camby on the roster against the Lakers, but there probably wouldn’t have been enough minutes for three centers. Warkentien rolled the dice that Nene was ready to explode and that Andersen could bring energy, rebounding and shotblocking off the bench, and it worked out, for the most part. Warkentien also signed Dahntay Jones, who eventually turned into (sort of) a starter for George Karl, and re-signed J.R. Smith.

Now let’s take a look at the job Otis Smith has done (from HoopsHype):

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Magic advance to Finals

Orlando rode a strong first half performance to an 18-point halftime lead, and held off the Cavs’ late charge to win Game 6 (103-90) and clinch a date with the Lakers in the Finals.

Dwight Howard had arguably his best game of the series, posting 40 points (14-21 from the field, 12-16 from the free throw line), 14 rebounds and four assists. The Magic overcame substandard shooting from Hedo Turkoglu (3-12, 10 points) with fine play from Rashard Lewis (6-13, 18 points) and Mickael Pietrus (5-10, 14 points).

For the Cavs, Game 6 was more about their failure to have an answer for Howard than it was about getting poor play from LeBron’s sidekicks. Delonte West (9-19, 22 points) and Mo Williams (6-12, 17 points) both played pretty well and shot a combined 5 of 7 from long range. Anderson Varejao (7-12, 14 points) also had a solid game. However, the rest of the Cavs shot a combined 5 for 17 (29%) for 12 points.

James had 25 points, seven rebounds and seven assists, and shot just 40% from the field. Most players would be reasonably happy with a night like that, but the Cavs needed more from LeBron in an elimination game on the road. Still, he averaged 41.2 points (on 50% shooting), 8.6 rebounds and 8.2 assists in the series, so it’s hard to fault his play.

Looking ahead, the Lakers match up pretty well with the Magic in that they have a couple of big men in Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol that will try to slow down Howard. Bynum in particular needs to play well and it’s not clear that his stamina is strong enough to play a ton of minutes. Gasol isn’t strong enough to handle Howard one-on-one, so when Bynum is on the bench, the Lakers will probably have to throw some double-teams at Orlando’s big man. Meanwhile, Courtney Lee and Mickael Pietrus will be asked to watch Kobe. If they can slow him down and the Magic continue to hit their threes, they’ll have a good shot to upset the Lakers.

Check back later in the day for a complete breakdown of the challenges that the Cavs face over the next year or so as they try to pick up the pieces and re-sign LeBron.

Magic triumph in chippy Game 3

The so-called “shot that saved Cleveland” didn’t seem to affect the Magic in Game 3. The heartbreaking Game 2 loss would have sent most teams into a tailspin, but Orlando has been resilient all season long, and like any championship-caliber team, the Magic look forward not backward.

Game 3 was the most physical of the series thus far. The officials called 58 fouls and the teams shot a combined 86 free throws. Dwight Howard shot 19 of the Magic’s 51 attempts, and made 14. That’s a 74% clip for a guy who shot 59% on the season.

Free throws also had an impact on the Cavs. LeBron James made 18 of 24 attempts (75%), but missed five attempts in a six-minute stretch in the fourth quarter that, had he made them all, would have had his team trailing by one instead of six with two minutes to play. Even the most diehard Cleveland fan would admit that LeBron was getting to the line more than he ought to be in the final quarter. He got just about every call when he went to the hole, drawing a questionable blocking foul on Mickael Pietrus, and drew a foul on the retreating Howard at the rim. Then Howard fouled out after cleanly blocking LeBron’s three-point attempt with 0:36 to play. In short, LeBron is getting Jordan-esque treatment from the refs, even on the road.

He posted 41 points, nine assists, seven rebounds, two steals and an amazing block, but shot just 1 of 8 from three-point range. The Magic’s plan is to encourage LeBron to shoot the long ball. If he happens to get hot, then they’ll just have to live with it. The Cavs didn’t have much else going offensively. Mo Williams scored 15 points on 5 of 16 shooting and Delonte West pitched in with 12 points. The rest of the Cavs combined for 21 of the team’s 89 points.

The Magic had a more balanced attack with five players in double figures, led by Howard’s 24 points.

With the loss, the Cavs find themselves in a hole once again. They do not want to go down 3-1 in the series, so while Game 4 isn’t quite a “must-win,” it’s damn close.

LeBron’s buzzer-beater saves Cavs’ season…

…and maybe the franchise itself.

When the home team loses Game 1 of a seven-game series at home, they usually come out strong and focused in Game 2, and that’s exactly what the Cavs did tonight. They actually built a 23-point lead, and looked like they were on their way to an easy win, but the Magic slowly but surely chipped away at the lead. It was 12 at halftime. Then it was six at the end of the third quarter. The Magic just kept coming.

Orlando had the ball with 0:13 to play, tied at 93-93, when Hedo Turkoglu ran the clock down, drove into the lane and hit the go-ahead bucket with 0:01 to play. He should have taken that extra second, because on the next possession, LeBron caught the ball at the top of the key extended, fading away, and rattled home the game-winning three. I’m amazed that he was even able to get open that easily, but he simply walked into Turkoglu, shoved him a little (nothing illegal) creating the space to catch the ball and shoot. I bet Stan Van Gundy would like to have that defensive possession back and double-team LeBron instead of having Rashard Lewis guard the ball out of bounds. With only 1.0 seconds remaining, there wouldn’t be enough time for the passer to get the ball back and get off a shot.

The Cavs were very fortunate to escape Game 2 with the series tied, and the win might breathe new life into a team that is playing with very little consistency right now. The Magic are simply a bad matchup for the Cavs. Dwight Howard is a tough guard down low and the versatility of Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis is causing fits for the Cleveland forwards. And Stan Van Gundy has outcoached Mike Brown thus. He swapped the matchups for Dwight Howard (putting him on Varejao) and Rashard Lewis (putting him on Ilgauskas) to allow each defender to play to his strengths.

Typically, when a team loses a heartbreaker like this, they are a little hungover in the next game, but this Magic team is mentally tough, and they will keep coming at the Cavs. Cleveland will need to play 48 minutes (and maybe more) of good, solid basketball in order to get a win in Orlando.

I can’t imagine what Cavs fans went through over the last quarter of this game. They’re fooling themselves if they think it’s a sure thing that LeBron is going to stay next summer. The Cavs need to get to the Finals, and if they flame out against the Magic, I’d fully expect all the LeBron-to-NY/NJ rumors to start back up again. The city of Cleveland cannot afford a Cavs’ loss in this series.

Orlando steals Game 1

In a great back-and-forth second half, the Magic finally upended the Cavs, 107-106.

The Cavs jumped out early but the Magic settled down in the second quarter and kept the game reasonably close. They would have been down by 12 at halftime if not for a three-quarter-court heave by Mo Williams that put the Cavs up 15.

One thing that jumped out at me is the way that the Cavs matched up at the beginning of the game. They put Delonte West on Hedo Turkoglu, Mo Williams on Courtney Lee and LeBron on Rafer Alston. As good of defense as LeBron has played this season, the Cavs actually think West is their best perimeter defender. He’s smaller than Turkoglu, but that doesn’t really matter because Turkoglu doesn’t post up. West can hug him on the perimeter and contest his jumper and use his quickness to keep him from getting to the hole. Meanwhile, it’s highly unlikely that LeBron will get into foul trouble covering Alston.

Conversely, Stan Van Gundy should really think about switching his front court matchups by putting Howard on Anderson Varejao and Rashard Lewis on the more perimeter-oriented Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Lewis would be at a size disadvantage, but it would allow Howard to stay closer to the rim since Varejao doesn’t spend a lot of time on the perimeter.

For much of the first half, Dwight Howard couldn’t catch a break inside. The refs were letting the Cleveland bigs abuse him, but called him for a couple of ticky-tack offensive fouls, which kept him in foul trouble throughout the first half. If the refs are going to let defenders hack away, then they better let Howard use his strength when he has the ball.

The Magic proved during the Boston series that they are a resilient team. They are not easily rattled and they don’t get down on each other when things aren’t going well. Orlando went into Dwight Howard repeatedly in the third quarter and cut the Cleveland lead to four at the end of the quarter.

The final period was nip tuck the whole way. LeBron fouled Howard out of the game (undeservedly, I might add, as Howard jumped straight up) on a three point play that put the Cavs up two with 0:25 to play and then Lewis hit a huge three to put the Magic up one with 0:14 remaining. The Magic doubled LeBron right away and he gave the ball up. The possession ended with a missed corner three by West, a jump ball and then a Mo Williams attempt off the jump ball that was thisclose to going in.

The Magic continued to fight and took advantage of a Cleveland team that seemingly put it into cruise control at halftime. The Cavs tried to turn it on again in the fourth quarter but Orlando made enough plays to steal Game 1. LeBron finished with 49 points, eight assists, six rebounds, three blocks and two steals. Mo Williams chipped in with 17 points. Howard had 30 points and 13 boards before fouling out. Rashard Lewis went 9 of 13 from the field (including several clutch shots down the stretch) for 22 points and Hedo Turkoglu scored 15 points while dishing out 14 assists. The Cavs bench was thoroughly outplayed; they were outscored 25-5.

If tonight is any evidence, this is going to be an interesting series.

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