Since early in the season, we have been anticipating an Eastern Conference Finals showdown between two of Boston, Cleveland and Orlando. Only in the last month have the Cavaliers emerged as the clear favorites to win the conference. There's no question that Cleveland has been outstanding in the playoffs, but the extent to which Orlando has played poorly en route to the conference finals has probably been overstated. The Magic has still been amongst the league's five best teams in the playoffs in both offense and defense.
WHEN CLEVELAND HAS THE BALL
Cleveland Pace: 88.0 (26th NBA) Regular Season, 82.0 (14th) Playoffs
Cleveland Offensive Rating: 114.3 (4th) Regular Season, 116.5 (2nd) Playoffs
Orlando Defensive Rating: 103.0 (1st) Regular Season, 102.8 (2nd) Playoffs
This is a matchup, of two elite units, that should be very entertaining throughout the series. The Orlando Magic's defense still flies somewhat under the media's radar despite being anchored by Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard. Not only did Orlando have the league's best Defensive Rating in the regular season, the Magic has been as good defensively as any team save the Cleveland Cavaliers in the postseason. Orlando's defense was very good in the series win over Boston, but LeBron James presents a challenge unlike any other in the NBA.
The Magic did a fine job of defending James during the regular season. That meant he still averaged 30.7 points, 9.7 rebounds and 7.0 assists in the three head-to-head matchups and had a 43-point outing in there, though Orlando limited him to 43.2 percent shooting from the field. Stopping James will require the efforts of all five Magic defenders, and Howard's presence as a deterrent in the paint is key. The specific matchup will go to Hedo Turkoglu and MickaŽl Pietrus. Turkoglu has developed into a credible defender and offers good length, while Pietrus has the size and athleticism to counter James as well as is possible. He was effective against Paul Pierce in the semifinals.
James is enjoying a historic postseason. Having scored a point a minute for much of the series with Atlanta, James has been worth 3.3 Wins Above Replacement Player in just eight team games. His offensive explosion has helped mask the fact that his supporting cast has been just decent in the playoffs. Mo Williams is the only other key player with an above-average Offensive Rating during the postseason.
None of the other matchups stand out as especially favorable for the Cavaliers. Orlando has no one it needs to hide in the backcourt, not with J.J. Redick coming off of a series where he held Ray Allen in check. Backup Courtney Lee matches especially well with either Williams or Delonte West, and Rafer Alston's ability to match up with West gives Stan Van Gundy the option of cross-matching with his guards depending upon which player is causing more problems for the Magic. Orlando won't shut down Williams and West entirely, nor will they be likely to get easy scores.
Up front, the battle of the boards will be key. Despite being undersized, the Magic ranked second in the league in defensive rebound percentage. Meanwhile, Cleveland was just 12th on the offensive glass. Still, the Cavaliers could present a problem up front with their size. When Howard is asked to step up as a help defender, that leaves Rashard Lewis and Orlando's wings to contend with Cleveland's post players.
WHEN ORLANDO HAS THE BALL
Pace: 91.4 (13th) Regular Season, 87.7 (8th) Playoffs
Orlando Offensive Rating: 111.7 (9th) Regular Season, 109.7 (5th) Playoffs
Cleveland Defensive Rating: 103.5 (3rd) Regular Season, 94.6 (1st) Playoffs
For all the talk about the Magic's offense, from three-point droughts to Howard's touches in the post, the overall playoff numbers are surprisingly good. In each of the first two rounds, Orlando has broken through from beyond the arc in the final game of the series. To defeat a Cleveland defense which has been lights-out in the postseason, the Magic will have to do better.
The Cavaliers led the NBA in three-point defense during the regular season, allowing 33.3 percent shooting from downtown. Cleveland had a much more difficult time defending the three-point line in the three head-to-head matchups with Orlando. The Magic shot 39.4 percent on threes and averaged 11.3 triples in the three games, the most the Cavaliers allowed to any Eastern Conference foe.
Cleveland has a variety of defenders to throw at Howard, from the size of Zydrunas Ilgauskas to the quickness of Anderson Varejao to the veteran guile of Joe Smith and Ben Wallace. Howard figures to have little more success in the post then he did against the Celtics, and second-chance points are not likely to be as plentiful. Orlando might have more success getting Howard involved out of pick-and-rolls, as the Magic has used his backup Marcin Gortat in the postseason.
The most intriguing matchup for Orlando is Rashard Lewis going up against the Cavaliers' bigger power forwards. That means Lewis moves back to the perimeter after playing in the post at times during the series with Boston. Varejao will have to chase him around and repress his usual tendency to offer help defense. Cleveland did do a good job of defending Lewis during the regular season, holding him to 36.6 percent shooting, and has the help defense to take away the drive from Lewis when he beats his defender off the dribble. If the matchup does prove problematic, moving James to power forward and putting Wally Szczerbiak on the floor for additional shooting is an easy adjustment for Mike Brown.
To win this series, the Magic will need to get a strong effort from Hedo Turkoglu. Turkoglu's ability to create offensively has taken on added importance with Jameer Nelson out of the lineup and the less creative Alston at the point. When the Magic's offense has struggled in the playoffs, Turkoglu's inconsistent play has been the biggest reason. It's no coincidence that Orlando's best two games in the series with Boston were Turkoglu's two 20-point efforts. Turkoglu gets to deal with James' much-improved defense in this series. He's likely to be most creative running the pick-and-roll and attacking Ilgauskas, or to a lesser extent Varejao, off the dribble.
Van Gundy has gotten a solid effort from his bench in the playoffs. Gortat has stepped in capably for Howard whenever he has been in foul trouble, Anthony Johnson has been steady at the point and Lee's defense shut Eddie House down. Lee will apparently move back into a starting role in place of Redick, who can supply shooting off the bench.
Orlando got the better of this matchup in the regular season, winning the series 2-1. So far, every series in the playoffs has been won by the team that won or tied during the regular season--though certainly no regular-season results predicted an upset of this magnitude. It would be easy to write off the Magic having a single hot shooting night, but Orlando shot the ball well from downtown in all three matchups and was competitive even in its road loss. In a slow-paced series like this figures to be, three-pointers and strong defense make a potent combination.
For all the reasons you can identify, most notably James, the Cavaliers are clearly the favorites in this series, but I expect it to be much more competitive than the results of the playoffs so far would indicate. Orlando is a dramatic leap forward in competition from Detroit and an injury-battered Atlanta squad. Look for Cleveland to be tested at times before advancing to the NBA Finals for the second time in three years.
Cleveland in six.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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