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May 27, 2009
Matchup Problems
Why the Magic Gives the Cavs Fits

by Bradford Doolittle

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The NBA headlines Tuesday morning advertised a Mo Williams "guarantee" regarding the Cavaliers' chances of fending off the stout challenge being offered up by the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference finals. Because of that, the side story to last night's classic Game Four was about how Williams had to eat his words.

This was so overblown. The headlines were cooked. The line of questioning that led to Williams' comments was obviously intended to goad Williams into making a guarantee. You're not going to get a player on a 66-win team to say that he expects to lose. Not in a playoff series. What was he supposed to say? I was watching the wires last night at the paper I toil at, and the story about how Williams couldn't back up his "boast" moved at the same time as the game story. Some AP dude in Orlando had the story ready to send as soon as he could press "Enter" with his greedy little fingers.

Anyway...back to basketball. Williams was right about one thing: Cleveland is the best team in the NBA. They proved that over their first 90 games this season, of which they won 74. The Cavs' led the league in wins, point differential and had the top power rating in the NBA at 65.3, according to my world-famous formula. Seven of the eight previous teams with power ratings that high since the ABA-NBA merger have won the NBA title, with the 2007 Mavericks as the only exception.

Being the best team doesn't guarantee anything, as I'm sure even Williams would attest today. What's become apparent is that Cleveland is just not the same team against Orlando. All the numbers that follow were cooked up prior to last night's game.

      GP  PACE  oEFF   dEFF   nEFF
vNBA  87  86.5  115.8  103.8  12.0
vORL   6  88.3  106.2  114.9  -8.7

In the first half of Game Four, it looked like the Cavs might have figured a few things out. For the game, the Cavs' offensive efficiency was 111.6. But the Magic, as we all witnessed, hit 17 three-pointers, posted a 61% eFG and a 113.6 offensive efficiency. Any progress that Clevland made on the offensive end was eradicated by worsening issues on the other end of the floor.

It's rather amazing. The Cavaliers have been nearly 21 points per 100 possessions worse against the Magic than against the other 28 teams in the NBA. They've scored 9.6 fewer points and allowed 11.1 more points per 100 possessions, so you can't isolate the problems to the offensive or defensive end. To put it bluntly, Orlando has kicked Cleveland's tail just about every way it can be kicked.

How can this be? Can quirky matchups really explain this kind of swing? Let's do a quick Four Factors analysis to see if we can isolate some sort of cause and effect.

         CLE   CLE   CLE    CLE   |   OPP    OPP    OPP    OPP
        eFG% oREB%   TO%  FTM/FGA |  eFG%   oREB%   TO%  FTM/FGA
vNBA    .521  .285  .139   .244   |   .461   .253  .153   .224
vORL    .470  .219  .125   .203   |   .551   .206  .138   .243

The differences are across the board. The Cavs shoot worse and are much, much worse at defending shots. They don't get as many offensive rebounds, but do a good job of keeping Orlando off the offensive glass. They don't commit as many turnovers, nor do they force as many. They don't get to the line nearly as often against Orlando and they put the Magic on the charity stripe more than other opponents.

Cleveland's shooting numbers, for and against, are what really jabs you in the eye. So let's examine that area at the player level to see what's what. We'll leave aside the Cavaliers' defensive issues for the time being. Here are Cleveland's stats, split into the six games against the Magic (before last night) and the 87 games against everybody else.

Player            FG   FGA   3P  3PA   FT  FTA  eFG%  TPA%  FT/FGA  %SH
L.James_NBA      841  1697  142  414  651  841  .537  .244  .384    27%
L.James_ORL       75   155   11   31   56   72  .519  .200  .361    34%
------------------------------------------------------------------------
S.Pavlovic_NBA   118   270   47  115   26   56  .524  .426  .096     4%
S.Pavlovic_ORL     8    25    3   10    0    1  .380  .400  .000     5%
------------------------------------------------------------------------
D.West_NBA       317   688   95  237  115  137  .530  .344  .167    10%
D.West_ORL        19    46    6   19    4    5  .478  .413  .087     9%
------------------------------------------------------------------------
M.Williams_NBA   554  1183  197  458  213  237  .552  .387  .180    17%
M.Williams_ORL    34    98   12   40   14   18  .408  .408  .143    19%
------------------------------------------------------------------------
Z.Ilgauskas_NBA  371   784   17   46  147  190  .484  .059  .188    11%
Z.Ilgauskas_ORL   21    56    0    6    7    8  .375  .107  .125    11%
------------------------------------------------------------------------
A.Varejao_NBA    276   521    0    2  159  255  .530  .004  .305     8%
A.Varejao_ORL     21    39    0    0    8   13  .538  .000  .205     8%
------------------------------------------------------------------------
J.Smith_NBA      168   353    5   10   79  107  .483  .028  .224     5%
J.Smith_ORL       10    29    1    2    3    4  .362  .069  .103     6%
------------------------------------------------------------------------
B.Wallace_NBA     70   155    0    0   27   68  .452  .000  .174     2%
B.Wallace_ORL      3     6    0    0    0    0  .500  .000  .000     1%
------------------------------------------------------------------------
D.Gibson_NBA      91   241   40  129   38   51  .461  .535  .158     3%
D.Gibson_ORL       0     1    0    1    0    0  .000 1.000  .000     0%
------------------------------------------------------------------------
Cavs_NBA        3186  6771  684 1764 1654 2191  .521  .261  .244  7735.0
Cavs_ORL         211   493   41  123  100  132  .470  .249  .203   551.1

Two columns need explanation. TPA% is the percentage of field-goal attempt that have come behind the three-point arc. The last column (%SH) represents an estimate of team shooting possessions used, with shooting possessions calculated as FGA + (.44 * FTA). LeBron James is taking 7% more of Cleveland's shots against Orlando than in other games. However, the rest of the %SH figures for the Cavaliers' primary rotation players are largely unchanged. So James' extra shots are coming at the expense of end-of-the-bench players that haven't seen much, if any, court action against the Magic. The end result is that Cleveland's shot distribution is largely unchanged against Orlando.

What has changed is the success of those shots. James' eFG% is down against Orlando (.537 to .519), but that's not what is killing the Cavs. The Cleveland guards are all suffering at the hands of Orlando's long perimeter defenders, with Mo Williams suffering the biggest drop by far (.552 to .408). For the most part, Williams has been defended by Rafer Alston, which doesn't present a size disadvantage. He was also bumped around by Anthony Johnson in Game Three, which left Williams with a nasty shiner above one of his eyes. Still, one knock against Cleveland's pair of combo guards that have played so well this season is that they are undersized as a tandem. Williams' shooting woes aren't really a product of that possible deficiency.

Williams' counterpart, Delonte West, has had to contend mostly with Courtney Lee, while Mickael Pietrus, J.J. Redick and Hedo Turkoglu have mixed in from time to time. So size has been more of an issue for West, but his eFG% hasn't dropped as much as Williams' has against Orlando (.530 to .478). It's the style of his game that has changed. Against the Magic, 41.3% of West's shots have been three-point attempts, versus 34.4% against everybody else. Not coincidentally, his foul-drawing rate has dropped nearly in half.

In fact, pretty much all of the Cavs have seen a drop in their foul-drawing rate against Orlando, albeit to a lesser degree than West's tumble. The Magic led the NBA in defensive efficiency this season, while posting the fourth-lowest defensive foul rate in the NBA. Dwight Howard gets most of the credit for this. He is so adept at closing down the lane that opposing teams are forced into more perimeter shots. Howard is always waiting back there to seal off any penetration and because of that, the perimeter shots are more tightly defended. On top of that, those defenders, other than Alston, represent one of the tallest lineups in the league. Orlando's defenders aren't just long--they're mobile. They are able to execute this scheme without an excess of fouling.

What can Cleveland do? Not much, really. Mike Brown can't ask for much more from LeBron James. West likely can't go off the dribble much more than he has because of the aforementioned talents of Mr. Howard. The key is Williams. Even if Alston is pinching him on the circle, he's got to find a way to make a higher percentage of his shots. Williams is the primary support to James on the offensive end. He's the second-leading scorer and the only other Cavalier on the roster consistently capable of getting his own shot. He's proven capable of making contested shots in the past, so if the Cavs are going to win this series, Williams is going to have to make shots with a guy in his face. That's really the only way Cleveland is going to be able to get the points that have been so hard to come by against the Magic this season. He showed signs of snapping out of his funk in Game Four...then didn't score after the third quarter.

Another thing that would help is if Zydrunas Ilgauskas can be a more effective mid-range jump shooter. Other than his forays into the post, he's tended to plant himself outside of the three-point circle in one of the corners in the current series. Howard won't follow him out there, but if Ilgauskas can go back to hitting the 15-18 footers that he's so adept at, then perhaps Howard will have to move out of the lane. Howard is exceptionally quick at recovering, of course, but as long as Ilgauskas is shooting a .375 eFG%, it's easier for Howard to cheat back towards the middle and discourage any would-be penetrators.

Offensively, Cleveland would do well to field a small lineup with James at the four position. However, the small lineup presents issues at the defensive end. Ilgauskas is not adept at defending Howard on the pick-and-roll. That's the role that Anderson Varejao fills. However, Varejao can't hit the jump shots that might help soften up the middle of Orlando's defense. It's a heck of a problem for Brown and there are no easy answers. He's opted to play Ilgauskas alongside Varejao most of the time. That hasn't worked defensively, either, so I think it may be time to cut Varejao's minutes and go small. That would at least help to cover up Orlando's perimeter barrage. It might also allow Howard to go off for 40 points, but nothing Brown has tried defensively so far has worked and a smaller lineup would work better on offense.

Based on what Cleveland has done against Orlando to date, the Cavaliers turned out to be the real underdogs in this series. Even if Williams and Ilgauskas start converting their jump shots, we haven't covered the Cavs' problems defending Orlando. Cleveland is far from out of the series, but they are in trouble. Brown is the newly-minted coach of the year and it'll be fascinating to see how he counteracts the matchup problems that Stan Van Gundy throws his way. Brown's ability to adapt will go a long way towards determining if the James Epoch has any chance of starting this season.

Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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