With its back to the wall, Cleveland put together its best overall effort of this series, and Orlando limped out of the gate and at the end. That combination earned a Game 6 -- and elevated LeBron James to yet another level of excellence.
Orlando lacked the intensity necessary to seal the series, and now has to face the league's best regular-season team, with the world's best player, when the players are feeling better about themselves than they have since the opening tip of Game 1. And that does not bode well for the Magic.
" The Magic rode hot starts in their wins in Games 3 and 4, and horrible first quarters ultimately doomed them in their two losses. It's likely that Stan Van Gundy is planning on scripting the best start he possibly can, as opposed to not worrying about it and focusing on the middle and end. The Cavs hoped Rafer Alston would take a number of first-quarter shots, with different results on the road. The plan worked perfectly, after he hit the opening shot of the game. His poor shooting early and later on was exactly what Cleveland expected, and the Cavs likely will continue their strategy of not defending him too hard. He might get pulled quickly if his shot is off.
" What to do about LeBron? He's been beyond extraordinary and is more confident than ever. And in the middle of the floor, he's impossible to shut down because all his passing options are available. Trying to deny him that spot will help, but he eventually can get wherever he wants. Orlando probably wants to make him into a scorer at all times while limiting good looks from his teammates. Giving up 40-plus points but fewer than seven assists, amazingly enough, might be good enough for Orlando.
" Mo Williams found his shooting stroke, and he will come out firing again. It's his best plan for getting into the flow. Orlando has to account for him in transition and not let up if he gets off to a good start -- which he did in Game 4 before faltering.
" The Cavs are posting Zydrunas Ilgauskas more and isolating Delonte West, who is good at getting buckets over taller players. For Orlando's strategy of "Let LeBron get his but shut everyone else down" to work, the Magic have to keep these guys from getting into a good scoring rhythm. So sending help, even off LeBron, makes sense if they are scoring effectively.
" Orlando has a tendency to play too fast at home, resulting in sloppy turnovers and in quick shots that do not take advantage of mismatches on the floor. Orlando wants to push pace, but without risk.
" As much as Hedo Turkoglu and Dwight Howard have been dominating the series for Orlando, Rashard Lewis is the guy who has to be locked in and a target for all his teammates. His ability to shoot and slash can push Orlando's offense into a higher gear. Look for more pick-and-pops or isolations for him to do just that.
" To win on the road, the Cavs have to maximize possessions and earn extra ones. Limiting their unforced errors is a goal best accomplished by constant ball and player movement. Standing around only lets the Magic defenders find their best positions. But when they do stand around to watch what LeBron does with the ball, slipping behind defenders for seals and back screens is a great way to create easy looks for LeBron.
" More movement is also a great way to create better offensive rebound positions, another key for Cleveland. Again, assuming Orlando is going to outscore Cleveland from the 3-point line, the Cavs need to generate other ways to score points.
" Cleveland definitely was more aware of the high, flat ball screens Howard was setting for Turkoglu before diving to the rim. Because Howard does an excellent job of racing directly to the center of the rim, he forces the help defender to cover more ground to get into the right spot (some centers do a poor job of this and either get to the rim too slowly or too far off the center, allowing the helper to get to the right spot more quickly). On the road, that helper must be sure to get to the spot with a physical presence without fouling.
" Ilgauskas has been more successful at bumping Howard out of his comfort spots before he posts, but will have to adjust to this if the whistle is quick. And all the pick-and roll hedgers have to be aware of how the officials are calling the game when they hedge the ball handler -- and avoid the 51 free throw attempts they gave up in Game 3.
" LeBron seems set on being a shot creator to start the game, but he'd be making a mistake if his teammates got off to a slow start and he did not change things up. Cleveland does not want to chase Orlando all game, even if that means featuring LeBron more often earlier at the risk of not getting his teammates into the action.
" When the Cavs go small and put LeBron on Lewis, they are very susceptible to driving action because LeBron has to stay at home. And given that he's their best help defender, the other four are more on their own. Denying Howard as best as possible until he gets out of the lane, then being ready to rotate onto Lewis if LeBron leaves to help inside is something to watch for closely. This is the best way to get Lewis going when he's defended by LeBron.
As mentioned in previous posts, 3-point shooting is always an X-factor, but especially so for Orlando. Remember, the Magic outscored the Cavs by 33 points in Game 4 from behind the arc. And if they are on again, it's Dwight Howard time.
" Alston was the hero in both home wins, but he shot just 1-for-10 in Game 5 and was a minus-20 in just 28 minutes.
" West, Mo Williams and Daniel Gibson -- if any of these three can make some perimeter shots, it takes a world of pressure off LeBron, who will be carrying a heavy enough load.
" LeBron is the biggest X-factor in the world right now. This is yet another chance for him to add another chapter to his already exploding legacy.
Despite dominating much of the action and leading the series 3-2, Orlando has not been that much better than Cleveland. The Magic have outscored the Cavs by a mere two points in the five games. Orlando has not proved to be a great home team, and Cleveland is an excellent road team. The Cavs have gone smaller more often to help with their matchup issues, and they have a confident team that knows it can make things tough for Orlando's offense.
That is a great help when trying to pull out a road win. Howard, Turkoglu and Lewis can all have good games, and still LeBron is good enough to give his team a chance to win in the end. The idea that he'll lose all three road games in this series is not something I can accept until it happens. But by no means do I think that a loss tonight means Orlando is done for. Not by a long shot.
Prediction: Cleveland wins Game 6
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.