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May 29, 2009
Playoff Prospectus
Survival

by Kevin Pelton

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Cleveland 112, Orlando 102 (Orlando leads series 3-2)
Pace: 90.7
Offensive Ratings: Cleveland 122.9, Orlando 113.0

Please welcome back to this series the Cleveland Cavaliers offense. After posting a 115.6 Offensive Rating in their first win, the league's fourth-best offense during the regular season had been stymied the last three games, averaging barely more than a point per possession in that span. Last night, Cleveland rallied to score at a rate that would have led the NBA over the course of the season.

It started with the role players, most notably Mo Williams. Yesterday, The Painted Area's M. Haubs noted that the Cavaliers' woes, while complex, ultimately largely boiled down to not making shots. That was true of no one more than Williams, who shot 32.4 percent from the field and 22.2 percent from downtown over the first four games of the series. He found the touch from beyond the arc in Game Five, knocking down six triples in nine attempts to score 24 points.

The other big lift came from Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who scored 16 points on 6-for-8 shooting before fouling out. Ilgauskas simply got closer to the basket, eliminating the three-point attempts that had been a part of his game in this series. He made two midrange jumpers in four attempts and was a perfect 4-for-4 in the paint.

Behind Williams and LeBron James, Cleveland had a terrific first quarter, scoring 35 points and going up by as many as 22 at 32-10. Orlando was able to quickly recover, making up nearly the entire deficit by halftime. Rashard Lewis' three cut the margin to one heading to the locker room, and the Magic reeled off a 9-0 run to start the third quarter and hush the crowd at Quicken Loans Arena. After fits and starts on both sides, we reached the final five minutes with yet another close game apparently headed for a last-second finish if not overtime.

It was at this point of the game that the Cavaliers unveiled a new offensive scheme for the stretch run. Having spent most of the first four games of the series running LeBron James pick-and-rolls to mixed success, Cleveland decided to cut the screen out of the picture and isolate James in the middle of the floor with four teammates around him, three of them (Williams, Daniel Gibson and Delonte West/Wally Szczerbiak) shooters with a big man to finish in the paint.

Using James in the pick-and-roll setting means Orlando by definition has a defender there to offer help, and can bring in extra players if needed. Going to the open floor allowed James to work one-on-one against Mickael Pietrus, with James having the ability to see the entire floor if and when a help defender came.

The Magic isolated James on six possessions in the final six minutes (mixing in a play where James was the roll man in a pick-and-roll and one other where Williams screened for James before he isolated). It resulted in five scores and 13 points. James scored seven of them himself, and also created open threes for Gibson (made) and Williams (missed) as well as two brilliant passes to Varejao (he blew the first finish, though the Cavaliers got the offensive board, then had an athletic reverse finish as part of a three-point play). This was part of a stretch where James either scored or assisted on every Cleveland point from the last basket of the third period through the Magic being forced to foul intentionally at the end of the game.

At some point, you fall short of adjectives to describe what you're seeing. Win or lose, that's the case with James in this postseason. His performance last night might not have been as singularly dominant as what he did in Detroit in Game Five of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals, but it was every bit as valuable to his team. James finished with a triple-double of 36 points, 14 rebounds and 12 assists. Dating back to 1991, the first year Basketball-Reference.com's searchable database covers, this was the eighth 30-10-10 effort in a playoff game. James joined Charles Barkley as the only players with multiple such efforts in that span.

Because the Cavaliers were efficient on offense down the stretch, they needed just a couple of stops to open up a comfortable lead. Those came on consecutive possessions at the 4:24 and 3:32 marks. On the first, Varejao did a great job of tracking Hedo Turkoglu off the pick-and-roll and blocked his shot. The second saw Orlando go to an unusual play so late in the game--a straight post-up for Dwight Howard. Howard drew a double-team, but Cleveland did an excellent job of rotating and was able to contest Pietrus' errant three-point attempt from the corner. By the time the Magic got the ball back, it was a nine-point game and time was running out.

While Orlando still has an excellent opportunity to close out this series Saturday at home, this was surely a missed opportunity for the Magic, which led as late as the 6:01 mark. The bulk of Orlando's offense came from Howard (24 points on 8-for-10 shooting, along with an impressive 8-for-13 mark at the free-throw line), Turkoglu (29 points on 10-for-18 shooting) and Pietrus (13 points, including three triples). Lewis played well in the first half but was largely invisible after halftime, scoring all four of his second-half points from the stripe. Rafer Alston saw the bill come due for his hot shooting in Game Four. This time, he missed nine of his 10 shot attempts, seven of them coming from beyond the arc.

As we head to Game Six, one crucial factor could be the health of West. To little fanfare, the Cavaliers guard left the game at the 3:32 mark with what was diagnosed as a hip pointer. Szczerbiak was able to step in for West down the stretch, but West will be much more challenging to replace for a whole game if he is unable to go. West has topped the 40-minute mark in every game of this series, and that's a ton of extra minutes to fill with more Gibson, Szczerbiak playing some on the perimeter and the return of Sasha Pavlovic. In a series this close--and the two teams are now separated by two combined points over five games--West's absence could easily be the difference-maker.

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

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