Cleveland 96, Orlando 95 (Series tied 1-1)
Offensive Ratings: Cleveland 105.9, Orlando 113.7
My brother and I watched the closing moments of last night's Game Two together. Immediately after LeBron James hit the winning three, without coordinating anything, we sent an identical text message to two different friends: "We are all witnesses." What else is there to say about James' heroics?
Let us not underestimate the magnitude of the importance of James' three-pointer ripping through the net at the buzzer. According to WhoWins.com, teams that come home leading a best-of-seven series 2-0 have gone on to win 88 percent of the time. That's the scenario the Cleveland Cavaliers would have faced had James missed. Instead, they now go to Orlando tied and needing only one road win to reclaim control of this series.
Regardless of the outcome, this much has been made clear by the first two games in Cleveland: We have a series on our hands. The Cavaliers may be the stronger overall team, and perhaps dramatically so, but this is an excellent matchup for the Magic, which was James' three away from winning for the fourth time in five head-to-head meetings between the regular season and playoffs.
Before the finish, this game took on a similar storyline to Game One, only with greater extremes. Cleveland got off to another fast start, leading by 14 after one quarter, and seemed to have things well in hand when the margin reached 23 midway through the second on the strength of an 11-0 run. But threes remain the great equalizer for Orlando, which hit three of them from that point to the end of the quarter to get the deficit to 12 by halftime. The Magic tied it with 6:54 left, and from there we had a ballgame.
As was the case in Game One, Orlando got the better of the stretch run, and largely because of offense. Over the final seven and a half minutes, the Magic scored on eight out of 12 possessions for a total of 18 points--150 per 100 possessions. The Cavaliers countered with six scores in their 12 possessions totaling 14 points.
Cleveland's Mike Brown changed up his rotation by inserting swingman Sasha Pavlovic, who had not played at all in Game One. However, he didn't take the suggestions to go small down the stretch and move James to power forward. (I wanted to see Wally Szczerbiak, not Pavlovic, alongside James.) When Zydrunas Ilgauskas replaced Pavlovic with 6:07 left to play, the Cavaliers went to their starting lineup and would not change again until Orlando's final possession (when Pavlovic and Ben Wallace entered the game for defensive purposes). The two teams were even at 9-9 during the period where Cleveland's starting five was on the floor, though the Cavaliers did get an extra offensive possession with that group.
Overall, it's hard to draw strong conclusions on the Pavlovic experiment. He shot the ball, scoring nine points on 4-for-7 shooting, but Cleveland was outscored by six points during his extended turn as part of a smaller lineup alongside James at forward.
Anderson Varejao did a better job of containing Rashard Lewis down the stretch. Lewis missed both of his three-point attempts and scored just two points in the fourth quarter, though he did set up Hedo Turkoglu's game-tying three-pointer. It was Lewis, who scored 23 points, and Turkoglu (21) who carried the Magic's offense. The Cavaliers weren't about to watch Dwight Howard power through them in the interior again, sending double-team help from a big man to keep him in check. Howard got up just eight shot attempts, scoring 10 points. The extra attention on him did help Orlando stay hot from downtown, hitting 10 three-pointers in 23 attempts.
Stan Van Gundy's bit of strategy was to go with his big lineup without a true point guard for much of the stretch run. The grouping scored just twice in five possessions before Van Gundy got Rafer Alston back in the game. With Alston at the point, the Magic scored on three of their final four trips downcourt.
On the other side, Cleveland wasn't clicking on offense over the last two-and-a-half quarters. The fast start relied relatively little on hot shooting from James, who had just eight points in the first 20 minutes of the game. Alas, Mo Williams and Ilgauskas were unable to maintain their scoring. Williams was much more involved in the offense than he had been in Game One, and he finished the game well, but the Magic will certainly live with Williams shooting 7-for-21 from the field and 1-for-6 from downtown.
For James, it was actually something of a down evening. Granted, that still means scoring 35 points on 28 shooting possessions, but James did not fill up the box score as is his custom (five assists, four rebounds) and coughed the ball up six times. Many of those turnovers came on plays that have been called the other way at times during the postseason, including a (completely accurate) travel on the Cavaliers' penultimate possession. Alas, any signs of James' mortality during the game were quickly erased by his three-pointer.
For Cleveland as a team, we should not be so forgiving. The Cavaliers' defense has been unexpectedly porous so far in this series, continuing to demonstrate how Orlando can take advantage of matchups in this series. James' three did wonders for Cleveland's hope, but it will prove meaningless if the Cavaliers don't tighten their D and raise their level of play as the series shifts to Orlando.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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