Orlando 116, Cleveland 114 (Orlando leads series 3-1)
Offensive Ratings: Orlando 117.5, Cleveland 108.1
Since his outburst after Game Five of the Orlando Magic's series with Boston, Dwight Howard has been doing his best to answer critics who argued that his game is too unpolished at the offensive end. Exhibit A in Howard's self-defense will be the five-minute exhibition that was his overtime session in last night's Eastern Conference Finals win over the Cleveland Cavaliers. Howard scored 10 of the Magic's 16 points in the extra session and anchored a defense that stymied LeBron James just enough to earn the win and move within one victory of the NBA Finals.
As I'll detail tomorrow, Stan Van Gundy deserves a significant portion of the credit for adjusting the way Orlando has used Howard on offense, making him the roll man in the pick-and-roll instead of simply posting him up. However, those plays are only as successful as Howard makes them. During the overtime, he was energetic and was beating first Anderson Varejao and then Zydrunas Ilgauskas to the block for positioning, creating two dunks and a short layup on consecutive possessions.
Defensively, Howard came up with two enormous stops, stealing a LeBron James pass and later tying James up on a drive that could easily have ended up in a layup, a foul or both. Simply put, in overtime, it was Howard and not the MVP who was the best player on the floor.
James was, again, asked to carry a heavy load at both ends of the floor. While it's hard to be too critical of a 44-point, 12-rebound, seven-assist effort, James proved fallible down the stretch. He made entirely too many poor decisions that resulted in turnovers--eight of them in all, three in the final five minutes of regulation and three more in overtime. Those empty possessions are lethal in a close game.
I'm not sure the NBA's Coach of the Year is doing James any favors. Remember, a big reason Brown rightfully was lauded during the regular season was his willingness to rethink how James was used on offense. Right now, however, Cleveland is back to a steady diet of pick-and-rolls featuring James and the center, and the Magic seems to have those scouted out pretty well. I have the Cavaliers scoring nine points in nine possessions in the last five minutes and OT where they ran the James/center pick-and-roll, which is decent but nothing special.
The other option Cleveland has gone to frequently is involving both James and Mo Williams in the pick-and-roll. Early in the series, it was James setting the pick, but last night Williams served as the roll man. There is a reason the pick-and-roll generally involves big men--they are better suited to screening--and Williams' presence was a nuisance at best. The sample size was small, but the Cavaliers got better looks when they simply isolated James, forcing Howard to help off of his man instead of bringing him naturally into the play as the second defender. Howard came up with the tie-up in that situation, but two other times Cleveland came up with scores.
The other alternative the Cavaliers' coaching staff will want to consider is putting James in the post. They did this on occasion earlier in the game, but never went to it down the stretch. It's easier for Orlando to double a James post-up, but more difficult to recover to shooters. If played one-on-one, James stands an excellent chance of working his way to the free-throw line.
In part, the recipe for Cleveland is the same as it has been throughout this series: make shots. For a player who is guaranteeing victories and complaining about being snubbed from the All-Star team, Williams has had an awful series. He shot 5-for-15 from the field last night, and he and West (who had a decent game otherwise) combined to miss all six of their tries from downtown. The only triples the Cavaliers got from a source besides James came from Daniel Gibson, who finished the game as part of a three-guard set Brown favored over using Sasha Pavlovic. (Earlier, Pavlovic's minutes went to Wally Szczerbiak, who was little more effective on offense. Cleveland was outscored by eight in Szczerbiak's 21 minutes of play. I suggested playing Szczerbiak, and I'll take a mulligan on that one, thank you very much.)
Even though it did not translate into a win, I think the three-guard attack was a qualified success for the Cavaliers. Gibson, with eight points in 21 minutes, was effective on offense. Meanwhile, West did a terrific job of defending Hedo Turkoglu and doing his best to keep the Magic from being able to get into the pick-and-roll in the first place.
The funny thing about Howard's star turn in overtime is that he was clearly overshadowed through regulation by Orlando's unstoppable shooting. The Magic made 17 threes in 38 attempts, getting six from Rafer Alston and five from Mickael Pietrus off the bench. You could argue that Orlando will continue the hot shooting, or that it is impressive that Cleveland nearly overcame the three-point deficit to win on the road. I've decided I don't believe either school of thought. It's simply something that happened, and it has little or no relation to what will take place in Game Five or the rest of the series.
Of course, those threes do relate to Howard, and the Cavaliers' desire to keep him from getting free in the paint, leaving open looks on the perimeter. The Magic got a little trigger-happy down the stretch. Some of the threes they did try in the closing minutes of regulation were good looks that didn't fall, while others (Pietrus' miss from the corner with seven seconds left, which could have been devastating had Howard not created a second chance, stands out as a notable example) were forced, possibly in no small part because the longball had been going earlier.
The difference between these two teams in this series is nowhere near as large as a 3-1 advantage for Orlando makes it appear. Through the first four games, the teams are separated by 12 points, so there's no reason to believe Cleveland can't win the remaining three games. This series is a long way from over, and once again it is the Cavaliers' turn to answer.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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