TNT Will Know Little Drama In ECFs

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Eastern Conference Finals: (1) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (3) Orlando Magic

By the Numbers

W-L

Reg Season Off.  Eff.(Rk)

RS DE (Rk)

Playoff OE (Rk)

Playoff DE (Rk)

Orlando Magic

59-23

109.2 (11)

101.9 (1)

105.3 (5)

98.7 (2)

Cleveland Cavs

66-16

112.4 (4)

102.4 (3)

111.9 (2)

90.8 (1)

Congratulations to the Orlando Magic for knocking off our beloved then-defending champion Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.  The Magic were only clearly outplayed in one game out of seven and earned the right to take on the Cleveland Cavaliers for the chance to represent the East in the 2009 NBA Finals.

But all signs point to this Orlando team finding itself in a situation over the next two weeks in which it is simply outclassed.

It wasn't by some accident that the Cavaliers won 66 games with an average margin of victory of nearly nine points per, or that they blew through the first two rounds of the playoffs without losing a game.  My understanding is that it has something to do with the fact that they are really, really good.

This begins of course with the league's top performer and newly crowned Most Valuable Player, LeBron James.  In case James' 28-7-7 regular season production wasn't enough, he averaged nearly a 33-10-7 over the first two rounds and did so on an incredibly efficient 64.4 percent true shooting.  Like most teams, the Magic don't have a defender singularly capable of doing much to prevent LBJ from getting to the lane or the foul line at will.  The fact that he is knocking down more than 36 percent of his threes in the postseason (including a 13-for-27 effort against Atlanta) is downright terrifying.  If James can continue to make defenses pay for pushing him to shoot from the outside (the only area from which they can afford to give him a shot at this point), there won't be much the Magic can do to stop him.

The Magic did boast the league's top defense in the regular season, and they do have Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard to cause problems for LBJ inside.  But Howard may find trouble with veteran center Zydrunas Ilgauskas.  In addition to his ability to shoot over Howard and score in the post, the 7-foot-3 Ilgauskas is a terrific mid-range shooter, especially for a big man.  If Howard stays home in the paint to help on James' penetration, Big Z will feast from the elbows and wings.

Similarly, when the Magic choose to bring help from elsewhere against LeBron, the rest of the Cavs' lineup is loaded with shooters who will make Orlando pay the price.  While the Magic received a lot of attention for their free-flinging ways at the offensive end, the Cavs ranked fifth in the league at 20.4 three-point attempts per game for the season, and they made good use of those shots: Cleveland's 39 percent shooting from distance placed second in the Association.  Three Cavs regulars (Mo Williams, Wally Szczerbiak and Sasha Pavlovic) knocked down better than 40 percent of their threes, and Delonte West came darn close at 39.9.  Daniel Gibson rebounded from an awful start to check in at 38.2, and even Big Z knocked down 15 of his 39 attempts on the season (38.5).  We've seen it all season with the Cavs; LeBron's abilities force defenses to come to him, which necessarily creates open looks on the perimeter, and this Cavs team will knock down those looks, no matter which guards are on the floor.

Two other keys when Cleveland has the ball: point guard play and offensive rebounding.  Mo Williams still has his share of critics left over from his Milwaukee days when he was reputedly a classic numbers-first, everything else-second guy who didn't do much but get his and ignore the defensive end of the floor.  But no matter what went on Milwaukee, and no matter the reason for his successes this season (better situation overall, higher percentage of open looks, more attentive coaching staff), it can't be denied that Williams has been a fantastic addition for the Cavs from day one.  He gave Cleveland a legitimate second scoring threat and did it efficiently, getting his 17.8 points per game on 58.8 percent true shooting.  Williams bombed from the outside, used his quickness to break down defenses for his hard-to-stop teardrop floater (especially in transition), missed just 20 of his 228 attempts from the foul line and willingly shared the basketball throughout the season.  He will cause a significant problem for Rafer Alston.

The Cavs' frontcourt creates its share of extra opportunities.  Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Anderson Varejao and Ben Wallace all pounded the glass to the tune of multiple offensive rebounds apiece per game over the course of the season.  The Cavs offensive rebound rate has jumped from 12th in the league at 27.2 percent for the year to first at 32.9 percent for the postseason.  While Howard will do plenty to stem this part of Cleveland's attack, the Cavs will be sending multiple bigs to the glass on every attempt, and they are going to end up with second chances as a result.

At the other end of the floor, the Cavs offer a greater challenge to the Magic's threes-and-Dwight attack than a depleted Celtics team could.  In addition to marking himself the league's most dominant offensive performer, LeBron made his most significant commitment yet to the defensive end this season.  He has become a good weakside shot-blocker and has shown on several occasions that he can lock up opposing scorers when needed.  His physique will allow him to pose a greater challenge to Hedo Turkoglu or Rashard Lewis than either of them faced last round. 

On the inside, Big Z's size along with Varejao and Wallace's hustle and strength will prevent Howard from spending the series making deep catches for dunks.  He will have to make shots outside the restricted area, and he has yet to show that he can do that with any consistency.  With those three as well as Joe Smith available, the Cavs also have the depth to engage in the smite-a-Dwight when necessary.

Beyond that, Mike Brown has gotten everybody on this Cavs team doing their jobs on defense throughout the year.  Although Williams, West and Szczerbiak aren't known as premier individual defenders by any stretch of the imagination, each of them has done a sufficient job staying in front of their man, closing out on shooters and sliding to the lane to swarm the basketball and offer help against penetration.  Nobody in basketball defended the three-point line better than the Cavs did this season (Cleveland allowed 33 percent shooting beyond the arc), and there is no reason to believe that they will not continue to rotate and contest shots, be they from Lewis, Turkoglu, J.J. Redick, Courtney Lee, Mickael Pietrus or any of the Magic's other swing players.  Despite his couple of big shots down the stretch against the Celtics, I maintain that Alston should be encouraged to shoot and will find himself an offensive liability for the Magic against a strong Cavs defense.

To their credit, the Magic did take two of three regular season meetings from Cleveland.  But one of those took place before Jameer Nelson went down for the season (a game in which Nelson knocked down four threes, in fact).  A second came in early April when the Magic desperately needed a win to have any hope of grasping the second seed in the playoffs and the Cavs had already all but locked up the top seed in the East.  Given the way Cleveland played throughout the season, I find it hard to believe that sample will be indicative of what is to come in this series.

As the Magic demonstrated in Game 7 in Boston, they can get white-hot from the perimeter at any time, and it seems reasonable to expect them to post one lights-out shooting game somewhere in this series.  But it seems just as reasonable to believe that the Cavs will defend the three-point line effectively for much of the series and that the Magic won't win at Quicken Loans Arena, where the Cavs went 39-2 this season, the second loss coming when the Cavs rested their big guns in the last game of the year. 

The Orlando Magic play very good basketball.  The Cleveland Cavaliers play great basketball.  This is their series to lose.

The pick: Cavs in five

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