Cavs/Magic Preview

It’s always funny to hear pundits say that one team can’t beat another in a seven-game series. In most cases, those teams can spring the upset, but that doesn’t mean that they will. Such is the case in the Eastern Conference Finals where the Orlando Magic will try to upend the Cleveland Cavaliers.

No team has been more impressive in the postseason than the Cavs. They swept both the Pistons and the Hawks, and seem destined for the Finals. They have the best player in the league in LeBron James, a sharpshooting sidekick in Mo Williams and a host of players willing to fill their respective roles. Simply stated, they look unstoppable right now.

Conversely, the Magic struggled at times in their seven-game series against the Celtics, though that might have more to do with Boston’s defense and championship pedigree than anything the Magic were doing wrong. This Cavs/Magic series would be a lot more interesting if Jameer Nelson were healthy, but Rafer Alston has been a decent stopgap at point guard, and Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis are proving to be nice complements for big man Dwight Howard. The Magic are built like the Rockets were in the Hakeem Olajuwon era in that they have a center that demands a double team and have surrounded him with a number of players who can make teams pay from the perimeter. The problem is that Howard isn’t nearly the passer or the free throw shooter that Olajuwon was, so he’s not a great option in crunch time. The Magic have a tendency to fall in love with the long ball and don’t have a guy who can get to the rim on a consistent basis. But if Orlando is knocking down their threes (as they were in Game 7 of the Boston series), they’re nearly unstoppable.

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The Conference Finals: The four trades that got us here

We’re down to four teams…Cavs/Magic…Lakers/Nuggets…

What do they have in common? Star power, efficient offense, pretty solid defense, good coaching…check, check, check and check.

But how about an aggressive front office?

Each of these four teams made a major trade in the last two years.

July 11, 2007: The Magic sign Rashard Lewis
This was a sign-and-trade, not a straight free agent signing, but the Magic only had to give up a conditional second round pick. The upside for the then-Seattle Supersonics was a trade exception worth $9 million. The contract (six years, $110 million) seemed outlandish at the time, and Lewis is still overpaid, but the Magic did what they had to do to get him. He’s a great fit for what Orlando is trying to do. They are built like the Rockets were in the Hakeem Olajuwon era — find a big man who commands a double-team, and surround him with great shooters. Lewis is the Magic’s version of Robert Horry in that he’s a lanky, versatile, sharpshooting big man. Strength-wise, he’s not built like a typical power forward, but since the NBA has gotten smaller and quicker over the past few years, he can get by against most teams. Offensively, he creates all sorts of problems for opposing power forwards as he can drill the long ball (career 39% from 3PT) or take it to the rack. He’s also pretty good in the post when teams try to defend him with a smaller player.

Sure, the Magic overpaid on that contract, but I think it’s safe to say that if they hadn’t, they wouldn’t be in the Eastern Conference Finals right now. Lewis is a big, big part of Orlando’s recent success. GM Otis Smith deserves a lot of credit for having the cojones to pull the trigger on this deal.

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Defense, long ball key Magic win

If you didn’t watch Game 7 of the Boston/Orlando series last night, you might look at the score (101-82) and assume that the Magic controlled the whole game. Not so. Orlando held a five-point lead heading into the fourth quarter, but an 8-0 run by the Magic at the start of the period pushed the lead to 13, and they went on to a 35-point quarter and a series victory.

In the first six games of the series, Orlando’s recipe for a win was pretty simple — defense. In their wins (Game 1, Game 3 and Game 6), the Magic held the Celtics to less than 44% shooting from the field. In their losses (Game 2, Game 4 and Game 5), the Celtics shot better than 44%. In Game 6, the Magic held the C’s to just 39% shooting.

The other major factor was the the Magic’s accuracy from long range. Early in the series, Orlando had the touch from three-point land, shooting a combined 26 of 64 (41%) in the first three games. In Game 4, Game 5 and Game 6, the Magic shot just 17 of 77 (22%) from deep. In Game 7, the Magic hit a stellar 13 of 21 (62%) of their threes, and it’s tough to beat a team when they are that hot from long range.

What was the difference? Boston’s perimeter defense is pretty good, but Orlando did an outstanding job of moving the ball crisply and cleanly, and the C’s just couldn’t chase down all of the Magic’s shooters.

Hedo Turkoglu was the star of the game, posting 25 points, 12 assists and five rebounds, while hitting 4 of 5 from long range. Four other Orlando players — Rashard Lewis (19), Mickael Pietrus (17), Rafer Alston (15) and Dwight Howard (12) — scored in double figures to provide a balanced offensive attack.

With the loss, the Celtics go home for the summer. They face another offseason where they may lose one or more of their key contributors. Last year, it was James Posey (signed with the Hornets) and P.J. Brown (retirement) who left, while this summer both Glen Davis and Leon Powe are free agents. Boston’s payroll is quite high ($73.7 million), so whether or not these players come back depends on how far over the luxury tax the Celtics’ ownership is willing to go. The luxury tax for next season probably won’t change from its level this year ($71.1 million), so any contract that Davis or Powe signs with the C’s will have to be matched dollar-for-dollar in luxury tax. For example, if they sign Davis to a four-year deal worth $16 million, that contract is going to cost the C’s an additional $4 million per season as long as they are over the luxury tax threshold.

What did the Magic do right in Game 6?

On Wednesday, after two straight narrow defeats at the hands of the Celtics, I asked, “Why can’t the Magic finish games?” I referenced an article by John Carroll, where he said the problem was four-fold:

1. The Magic don’t fully commit at the defensive end.
2. They refuse to pound the ball inside.
3. They fall in love with the three-point shot.
4. They don’t trust their coach the way the Celtics do.

I focused on #2, and threw in a couple of other problems:

5. Poor late-game play from Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis.
6. They don’t have a guy who can consistently get to the hole.

So what was the difference in the Magic’s win in Game 6?

1. Check…they held the Celtics to just 75 points, 13 in the fourth quarter.
2. Check…Dwight Howard attempted 16 shots and 12 free throws; both are series highs.
3. No change…the Magic were just 6 of 26 for the game.
4. It’s hard to gauge how much they trust Stan Van Gundy on a game-to-game basis. They responded with good defense and a strong game plan to feed Howard the ball, so they must trust his instruction to a certain extent.

5. What about Turkoglu and Lewis? Here are their fourth quarter stats:

Lewis: 2-5 (0-1 3PT), 8 points, 3 rebounds, steal, assist
Turkoglu: 1-5 (1-3 3PT), 3 points, 2 rebounds

So Lewis and Turkoglu went a combined 3 of 10 for 11 points and five rebounds in Game 6. They shot 3 of 15 for a total of 11 points (combined) in Game 4 and Game 5. Turkoglu didn’t play particularly well, but the one shot he hit in the fourth quarter was HUGE. It came with 1:23 remaining and the Magic clinging to a three-point lead. Lewis clearly played well. He shot just 40% in the quarter, but he got to the line twice for four more points, had an assist, a steal and drew an offensive foul on Kendrick Perkins.

6. Check…Courtney Lee and Rafer Alston each had key driving layups in the fourth quarter. To win close games down the wire, you have to have a player (or two) that are effective at getting into the lane and finishing. Alston and Lee stepped up in the fourth quarter for the Magic.

On the whole, the Magic did a better job across the board, save for some very suspect three-point shooting. But can they post a repeat performance in Game 7 in front of a very hostile crowd?

Why can’t the Magic finish games?

In Game 4, Orlando was down six going into the fourth quarter and rallied, only to lose on Glen Davis’ game-winning jumper. In Game 5, they were up by 14 with 8:48 to play and were outscored 29-11 over the next nine minutes en route to a four-point loss.

Why can’t Orlando finish?

After Game 4, John Carroll wrote that the cause is four-fold. (ESPN Insider subscription required.)

1. The Magic don’t fully commit at the defensive end.
2. They refuse to pound the ball inside.
3. They fall in love with the three-point shot.
4. They don’t trust their coach the way the Celtics do.

No arguments with #1. In Game 4, the Magic allowed the Celtics to shoot almost 53% from the field. In the fourth quarter of Game 5, the C’s shot 11 of 19 (58%) during their tremendous comeback. That is not championship-caliber defense.

Likewise, #3 makes sense as well. For a team that takes a ton of threes — almost 31% of the Magic’s field goal attempts come from long range in the last two games — they have been terribly inaccurate (11 of 51, or 22%).

I can’t get in the minds of the Orlando players, so I don’t know how much trust they have in Stan Van Gundy.

But I can speak to #2…

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