Commentary

Heading in opposite directions

Originally Published: November 11, 2009
By John Hollinger | ESPN.com

ORLANDO -- No, we can't call this one a litmus test. Not when key starters sat out on each side (Rashard Lewis, Delonte West), not when each side is still figuring out exactly what they've got after a choppy first two weeks, and not when a potential playoff meeting between the two Eastern Conference titans is still more than six months away.

What we can say is that Cleveland's 102-93 win in Orlando on Wednesday, in which the Cavs led by as many as 22 points in the fourth quarter, was indicative of two teams headed in very opposite directions at the moment. While the Cavs (5-3) used this game to show they may have overcome some of the early hurdles that plagued their offense, the Magic (6-3) demonstrated that their 5-1 start may have been something of a mirage.

Certainly, that's the belief of Magic coach Stan Van Gundy. Never one to shy from self-flagellation even at the best of times, he had harsh assessments for both himself and his players after Cleveland shredded Orlando's defense for 66 points on 57.5 percent shooting in the first half before coasting home.

"We're a bad basketball team right now," he said. "If your team isn't playing hard and not defending, that's an indictment of you as a coach."

Needless to say, he's unimpressed with his team's effort on D, and with reason. An Orlando squad that led the league in defensive efficiency last season finds itself in the bottom half of the league after the dissection at the hands of Cleveland.

"A broken record. No defense, no rebounding, not a whole lot of effort. We don't defend and we don't play hard enough.

"I'm not [surprised] anymore because every night I see a lack of effort. The defensive numbers don't lie. We won last year because of our defense. This group thinks we win with our offense, so we don't play any defense. We're one of the worst defensive teams in the league."

Van Gundy called out his roster 1 through 12 and then mentioned specific lethargic plays by both Vince Carter and Mickael Pietrus, but saved his harshest words for team captains Jameer Nelson and Dwight Howard.

"Dwight is having trouble having double-figure rebounding games, [and] he's blocked one shot in three games. Jameer -- look, people have big nights [against you], but it's [Oklahoma City's] Russell Westbrook, it's [Charlotte's Raymond] Felton, it's Mo Williams. Two returning guys, captains, that know your system [and] are supposed to be leaders. It's not all on them, but it's got to start with them."

Nelson indeed has been shredded the past three games -- Williams shot right over the top of him for several of his 28 points, including 22 in the first half on 9-of-9 shooting, and that follows big games by Westbrook (17 points, 10 assists) and Felton (18 points) at his expense.

Howard has struggled with fouls this season, picking up his second just 2:18 into Wednesday night's game and finishing with five in 31 minutes; he's picked up 37 personals in just eight games, and it has limited him to 31 minutes per game. Plus, he's averaging only 7.8 boards in his last six games and has blocked only three shots in his last five.

Nelson, taciturn before the press but a locker-room leader behind the scenes, bought in to the criticism.

"It's not a secret. We have to buckle down defensively and get tougher," said Nelson. "We're not as good as we thought we were, especially defensively."

"We just have to look in the mirror and see what kind of team we're going to be," said Howard.

Surprisingly, it wasn't Nelson or Howard but J.J. Redick who spoke up first in the locker room after the game. "He was absolutely right, he said we have to be honest with ourselves, we're not very good right now," said Van Gundy.

"I just said something that needed to be said," said Redick. "I think everybody in here is frustrated right now. We can be really good, but right now we're not very good."

For Cleveland, this game stood out as a marker that the offseason acquisition of Shaquille O'Neal could pay some positive dividends this spring. Shaq drew the two quick fouls on Howard to get him out of the game, while his ability to single-cover Orlando's big man for long stretches eliminated a lot of the easy 3-point looks that tore the Cavs apart last season. The Magic finished the night with just four triples. That left Orlando dependent mostly on pick-and-roll jumpers from Carter and Nelson, and once they cooled off after halftime, the Magic had no answer.

That may change, obviously, once Lewis -- the other matchup nightmare for Cleveland -- returns from his 10-game suspension. But the Cavs have to be ecstatic about earning such a one-sided win in Orlando's building, especially since the Magic went right at Shaq's Achilles' heel early. Orlando involved Shaq in pick-and-rolls on its first four possessions and kept going to it through much of the first quarter, but Shaq was able to hold his own -- including a flat-footed block of a Carter drive.

Nonetheless, things may change dramatically in the next meeting on Feb. 11 in Cleveland, when Orlando will have Lewis back and both teams will have half a season of basketball under their belts.

For Wednesday night, let's go with these two big takeaways: First, that the Cavs' offseason efforts to match up better against the Magic appear to have paid some dividends; and second, that it's unlikely to have much bearing on the Eastern Conference title chase unless Orlando's shockingly pliant defense improves dramatically.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.