I was wrong about the Magic
Maybe we shouldn't be so surprised that Orlando stole Game 1 from Cleveland
I let you down. Sorry about that.
Of all people, I should have seen through the coronation blitz and realized that Orlando had a great shot to win this series. Unfortunately, I picked Cleveland to emerge in five games.
As I was writing Tuesday's story on how the Magic had carved up the Cavs during the regular season, I immediately began getting a sinking feeling that perhaps I had screwed up. The Magic's point differential during the second half of the season wasn't anywhere close to Cleveland's, but as we've learned countless times, the playoffs are all about matchups. That's why J.J. Redick went from being a 40-minute starter against Boston to DNP-CD against the Cavs, and it's why the Magic went from barely surviving against a weakened Celtics team in Round 2 to having the upper hand on a trip to the Finals.
Sorry to be late to the party, but it's becoming increasingly obvious that Orlando matches up great against Cleveland. After Wednesday night's Game 1 comeback win, the Magic have won three of the four meetings between the two teams this season. The Magic's two regular-season wins were blowouts, while Cleveland's one victory was a white-knuckler at home.
What's scary about Wednesday night's game is that it had all the marks of the three regular-season meetings. Once again, Orlando completely controlled the defensive glass, as Cleveland finished with just eight offensive boards from 36 missed shots. Again, the Cavs not named LeBron couldn't get to the line, as the supporting cast earned only seven free throws, and one of them was a technical. Again, Mickael Pietrus played a ton of minutes (30) off the bench as the primary LeBron James defender. And again, Orlando's much-maligned point guard tandem was unusually productive (16 points and 11 assists combined, against just one turnover).
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The Magic mess up the Cavs' defense because they don't have a great matchup against Dwight Howard, so Cleveland must either let Howard go nuts in the paint or double-team him and let a barrage of 3-pointers loose from outside. And the Magic mess up the Cavs' offense because they turn the four players not named LeBron into standstill jump shooters who produce no other contribution.
Apparently, Cavs coach Mike Brown knew this, because Wednesday night he tried changing the matchups to produce a new result. It worked for a half. He put LeBron on Rafer Alston, stuck Delonte West on Hedo Turkoglu and had Mo Williams check Courtney Lee.
Brown also changed his defensive approach from inside-out to outside-in. In the three regular-season games, Cleveland made sure it contained Howard and did the best it could with the 3-point shooters; in response, the Magic hoisted nearly 29 3-point attempts a game and buried the Cavs under a mountain of 3s.
Wednesday night, the Cavs decided to contain the 3-point shooters and do the best they could with Howard, who went off for 30 points on 14-of-20 shooting. Orlando tried "only" 20 3-pointers but made nine, including the winner by Rashard Lewis.
Thus, the Cavs must go back to the drawing board, and it's time for them to unearth the one tactic we didn't see Wednesday night: going small.
This may be the only way for the Cavs to survive. It's easier to double Howard with quicker, faster players, while James can slide up to the 4 and lock up Lewis. The Cavs haven't used that plan much this postseason, but it may be the only way they can guard the Magic in this series. Such a lineup might require them to play Sasha Pavlovic, because Wally Szczerbiak can't guard Pietrus, and that's a terrifying thought. But anything would be preferable to the way they've been chewed up during the teams' first four meetings.
I know the Cavs like the idea of allowing James to roam by having him defend Alston, but he's the only player on the team qualified to check Lewis. I'm a huge fan of Anderson Varejao's defensive expertise, but this is a bad matchup for him. He isn't used to defending the 3-point line and had trouble getting back to Lewis on the pick-and-pop plays on which Orlando devoured the Cavs during the second half. And if Varejao guards Howard instead, he may be able to flop himself into a few offensive-foul calls -- which is vital, because putting Howard on the bench is about the only way Cleveland can stop him.
On the other end, having LeBron post up against Pietrus seemed really effective. In fact, pretty much anything that involved having LeBron take a shot seemed to work really nicely. James was majestic with 49 points on 20-of-30 shooting, and in truth, the Cavs played well enough offensively to win on most nights. A 110.4 offensive efficiency mark against the league's top defense ain't too shabby.
What has to concern Cleveland, however, is that this game looked like an outlier. James was making every jumper he threw up for three quarters, and Williams hit a 70-footer before the half. The former can't be counted on, and the latter won't happen again. West received some wide-open looks on 3-pointers, but otherwise, clear openings for his teammates were few and far between, the free-throw totals being the canary in the coal mine in that department.
Again, going small might be helpful there. The Cavs can give James much more space by putting three shooters on the floor around him and playing either Varejao or Zydrunas Ilgauskas at center, and that would put pressure on Lewis to check a smaller, faster player. Having another ball handler around also might leave James fresher for the stretch run -- I can't remember ever seeing him run out of gas the way he did Wednesday night.
Regardless, Game 1 provided an important lesson: We should pay attention to regular-season matchups, particularly when they're as one-sided as they were between these two teams. Perhaps the Cavs will breeze to four straight wins and we'll all forget Wednesday night ever happened, but it sure doesn't look that way.
Somehow, Cleveland must shake up the matchup mix and find something that works in its favor. Otherwise, the league's dream matchup of Kobe versus LeBron will have to wait for some other year.
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.