- David Thorpe, ESPN Staff Writer
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Conference final scouting report: Magic-Cavs
This may be a No. 1 versus a No. 3 seed, but nearly every expert recognizes that these are the two top teams in the East. Cleveland has sailed beautifully thus far, but has done so by being very tough on defense and electric oftentimes on offense. Orlando has been pushed and made better by what's happened in the playoffs, including two incredible series clinchers on the road.
Both teams are very confident and have reasons to believe they are the superior team. Cleveland was the league's best team most of the season and is almost unbeatable at home, and has crushed its opponents almost every half. But Orlando beat Cleveland twice and almost beat the Cavs in Cleveland back in March. No team matches up better with the Cavs than this Magic team, a fact both teams know as well.
Cleveland's offense versus Orlando's defense
• Cleveland has scored 111.9 points per 100 possessions in the playoffs (No. 2 overall), and Orlando has allowed 98.7 points per 100 (No. 2 overall).
• Cleveland's offense is running on all cylinders, and yes, it begins with running. Especially because of Orlando's strong half-court defense, the Cavs will look to push pace on makes and misses, and will take early jump shots from 2-point range or a set shot from beyond the arc. The Magic rarely send more than two or three guys to the offensive glass, so it won't be too difficult to get back on defense to slow the ball and find the shooters. They were exceptional at this after Eddie House killed them in Game 2 and part of Game 3. In fact, it was one of J.J. Redick's biggest contributions (Courtney Lee's too). This means that guys like Wally Szczerbiak may have trouble finding an easy open 3-pointer.
• The Cavs will post up Anderson Varejao early in games, as he's normally defended by Dwight Howard. Getting an early foul on him could be a very positive sign, one that he avoided in the three regular-season games. In the half-court sets, Howard normally hangs back and does not even defend Varejao, roaming the paint and relying on help to contest Varejao jumpers. He'll stay back when Cleveland runs ball screens for Varejao as well, so if Cleveland puts him in high ball screens with an empty wing, he can pick-and-pop with little help coming. Of course, Orlando would love to see more Varejao jumpers and less of anything from LeBron James.
• They won't get that wish, because LeBron will run everything for Cleveland. He'll be defended by Hedo Turkoglu initially, but the Magic will switch screens with LeBron if they involve the big defended by Lewis. This puts Turk on Ilgauskas some, an advantage that Big Z should try to prey on once a shot is taken by going hard to the glass. He can try to overpower Lewis in the post as well, but Lewis has been tough inside for Orlando in the playoffs.
• Orlando is every bit the defensive team that Cleveland is and Houston was, chasing shooters off the line and having a sound defensive strategy that gets executed regularly. And with Howard staying inside, the Magic can be an excellent rebounding team. Cleveland needs to be very aware of keeping proper spacing once it runs ball-screen actions, forcing the help defenders to cover as much ground as possible.
• The Magic will try to avoid doubling LeBron, hoping to keep him from creating huge nights for himself and others. They'll live with 40 from him if no one else gets going. LeBron needs to accept that and go get that 40, while creating when he can.
Orlando's offense versus Cleveland's defense
• Orlando scored 105.3 points per 100 possessions in both rounds (fifth), while Cleveland allowed just 90.8 points per 100 (first by almost eight points per 100, a huge number).
• As the stats suggest, Cleveland has been killing teams on both ends of the floor. But Orlando has evolved this postseason into an excellent and somewhat dynamic offensive team. Like Cleveland, it is a team that is strong in the half court but wants to push pace whenever possible. It's smart strategy against this defense, which gets stronger as the shot clock ticks down. And it's something that helps Rafer Alston, who loves to sneak to the rim for a layup or a quick kick-out for a 3-point shot. He'll even find Howard as the trail post for the dunk on occasion. Cleveland loves to pound the offensive glass, but it comes at a cost.
• Despite Howard's complaints after Game 5, the Magic do just fine when he gets 10 to 12 shots a game. Consider this: In Games 3 and 4, Howard scored 35 total points on 13-of-24 shooting from the field. The Magic were beaten by a total of five points, and lost both games. In Games 6 and 7, he scored 35 points on 14-of-25 shooting and the Magic won both games by a combined 27 points. This is not to suggest that they should not throw him the ball, in fact, getting it to him is more important now that he's facing Ilgauskas. Pick-and-rolls and post-ups will be run constantly.
Cleveland will double Howard immediately oftentimes on the inside catch, but it has to be careful not to telegraph who is going to do the doubling. If the Cavs send the guy too early, Orlando's initial offensive spacing, with everyone behind the 3-point line (and everyone capable of making that shot), allows it to run an easy cutter to the basket for a bucket. Kendrick Perkins had success bumping Howard out of his range for his sweeping hook, but Ilgauskas lacks the strength to do likewise. Allowing him to get middle from three to six feet out is death for Cleveland.
• Howard is very dangerous when diving to the rim after a drag screen because Cleveland's base defense is not always set yet. The Cavs need to race back and establish it to prevent as many easy buckets from Howard as possible. He's also a huge problem when Cleveland goes small at the 4 to better defend Lewis, as any help rotations leave a small to block out Howard.
• To make up for Ilgauskas' inability to show on ball screens, Cleveland will trail the dribbler. This means an immediate 5-on-4 situation, so Orlando must be sure to space out behind the 3 and force Cleveland to choose -- help on Alston and leave a shooter who's spotting up or force Alston to make a driving shot. Philly chose to make him finish, and it was pretty effective. It's a strategy that Cavs coach Mike Brown is going to have to consider and reconsider all series -- stay home with the 3-point shooters, who can shoot him out of games, or help on the driver and race out to contest.
Alston: Without doubt, the trade to acquire Alston after Jameer Nelson went down was an extremely productive move. Alston has not only held down the fort in Nelson's place, but was a huge catalyst in Orlando's Game 7 win in Boston. He did not shoot well at all in the series, but has played very well against the Cavs, averaging 18 points with six assists on 58 percent shooting (one game was when he was on the Rockets). He's an underrated defender, and his matchup with Williams will be a key to the series.
Williams: Williams put together some solid games against Atlanta and seemed to make clutch shots whenever he had to. Now that the defense the Cavs are facing is going up significantly compared to Rounds 1 and 2, Williams' role as a shooter and playmaker is going to be put to the test. No Eastern team defended Williams better than Orlando, which held him to 38 percent shooting from the field.
Lee: Back in the starting lineup. Averaged over 12 ppg on over 53 percent shooting against the Cavs, and is strong enough to defend West and quick enough to slow Williams.
West: West may well have been Cleveland's second-best player against Atlanta. He played great defense while still being an excellent contributor offensively. His 21 points on 13 shots in Game 4 was huge. His defensive focus in this round will be to help on Howard inside, but considering how good Orlando defends, his offense will still be of huge value. He struggled in his two games against the Magic this year, scoring just 13 points total.
Turkoglu: Recovered from a poor series against the Sixers to be perhaps the MVP of the second round for Orlando. Howard is their best player, but they run their offense through Turk, and he responded with 16.3 points per game and 5.3 assists per game. He scored 24 and 25 in two of their wins, and will need similar production going forward. Has played well against the Cavs before, but will be pressed more than ever to keep his offensive production flowing while dealing with James.
James: His 47 points, 12 boards and eight assists in Game 3 tell us all we need to know about James. He's going to do whatever it takes to propel his team forward. If he can be slowed at all, it would be a huge blow to Cleveland because he's not just their best player but also their emotional leader. Turkoglu was masterful in Game 7, and is really the key playmaker for Orlando, so James will have to prioritize his defense.
Lewis: He took his game to a higher level in Orlando's Game 6 win in Philly (without Howard) and then did it again to close out Boston. He's the second-best matchup for Orlando in this series, but it's imperative that he keeps driving to the paint and not just launching 3-pointers. Lewis made just 36.5 percent of his shots in the three matchups against the Cavs this season, but when he's active offensively he can neutralize some of Varejao's excellent help on defense, while dragging him to the perimeter when his shot is on.
Varejao: As consistent a performer as the Cavs have, always bringing great energy to the glass and to defense. Grabbed 21 rebounds in Atlanta in the two games. Defending Rashard Lewis will be his biggest challenge thus far, as will staying involved on the defensive glass even when he's pressed to defend Lewis on the perimeter.
Howard: His verbal outburst about his lack of touches launched national attention on the issue, and it catapulted his place within the team to a better place. It's not just up to his coach to get him the ball, it's up to him and his teammates -- lesson learned. His scoring dipped in the series from Round 1, but his rebounding ticked up to 17.1 per game. He's got a much more favorable matchup than he did against Kendrick Perkins, as he's so much faster, quicker and stronger than Ilgauskas. He averaged 18.3 points and 14.4 rebounds with 3.67 blocks in three games against Cleveland, and more importantly, committed only eight fouls overall.
Ilgauskas: Did what he needed to do against the Hawks after Game 1. Hit enough pick-and-pop jumpers and fought hard in the paint to help neutralize Atlanta's inside game. His challenges go way up in this series, though. Of course, he'll need help guarding Howard, but his outside game can help drag the league's best shot-blocker out of the paint. Keeping Howard off the offensive glass should keep Big Z up at night, because it's as important as anything the Cavs do on defense.
Played very solidly on defense in the entire Boston series. He'll probably play less than half of each game against Cleveland, but if he can find his shooting stroke he's a strong X factor for the Magic.
He was a huge factor off the bench in Round 2, scoring double figures five times (three games of 17 points). He gives Stan Van Gundy a strong veteran option if Lee or Redick are not playing well.
Was not needed much against Boston, but should see more time as Cleveland plays much bigger. He's an excellent athlete with finishing skills, and cannot be ignored when Cleveland rotates.
Capable of scoring when needed and runs the team well. His veteran leadership is important in a series of this magnitude.
Yet another veteran who comes off the Magic bench, bringing solid defense and board work to the court. A trusted player if Howard gets in foul trouble.
Was not needed much in Atlanta, and did not play well overall. For Cleveland to take this series, it's likely that he'll need to be a good player for them.
Always capable of having a big scoring night, as he did in Game 2 with 17 points against the Hawks. A definite scoring option off the bench for Cleveland.
Strictly a space-eater and defensive presence now, but one with so much playoff experience.
It's impossible to ignore how well Cleveland has executed on both sides of the ball this postseason. They are truly a team, led by the game's best player and the MVP. And Orlando needed seven games to close out a fatigued team from Boston. But look a little deeper. Orlando is missing its own leader and second-best player in Jameer Nelson, and is still in the conference finals.
The Magic knocked off the defending champs by beating them twice in Boston, in a series in which they should have won six of the seven games. Both teams feature lock-down defenses and two of the first-team All-NBA players. Orlando is capable of winning in Cleveland, and I expect it to win once there. Cleveland, though, is good enough to take two of three in Orlando. In the end, the Cavaliers have too much going for them to lose in this round.
Prediction: Cleveland wins 4-2
David Thorpe is an NBA analyst for Scouts Inc. and the executive director of the Pro Training Center in Clearwater, Fla., where he oversees the player development program for more than 40 NBA, European and D-League players. Those players include Kevin Martin, Rob Kurz, Luol Deng, Courtney Lee and Tyrus Thomas. To e-mail him, click here.
Synergy Sports Technology systems were used in the preparation of this report.
4hSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann