Monday, May 18, 2009

Cavs vs. Magic: 2009 Eastern Conference Finals Preview

Despite being shamefully denied a matchup of St. Joe's alums Jameer Nelson and Delonte West, this could still be an exciting Eastern Conference finals, though it all depends on how badly Orlando wants it. They fought tooth and nail in game 7 against Boston, displaying an intensity and a hunger that we hadn't yet seen from this relatively inexperienced squad. They can shoot with the best of them and have the best young big man - if not the best of all big men - in the league down low, and an exceptionally deep bench that's driven teams crazy thus far in the postseason.

The Cavs need no introduction, no assurance of their drive or their will. The consensus among fans, writers, and commentators seems to be that this team is destined to win a championship, if not this year then next. Let's see what Dwight Howard has to say to that...

Chief among the reasons to care about this series, even if its rarely close, is the matchup between LeBron James and Dwight Howard, two #1 picks out of high school who really panned out. Selected first overall in consecutive years, James and Howard represent the epitome or potential realized. They were the prospects scouts and GM's scour all ends of the earth for, and are now the perennial All-Stars and record-breakers they were born to become. They are the two most athletic and physically awe-inspiring specimens in all of sport, and are aged 24 and 23, respectively. They are the Most Valuable Player and the Defensive Player of the Year. This is just the first of many crucial meetings between these generational talents, and is therefore of historical significance. Watch, and witness, er, take notice as these future hall of famers do battle for a shot at glory.

But lest we forget, this is a team game. Here is how it breaks down:

Cavs 3 Keys to Winning

1. Force the guards to step up
Well over 50% of the Magic's scoring this postseason has come from the big 3 of Howard (19.6), Lewis (19.8) and Torkoglu (14.2), amounting to just over 53 ppg. The Cavs might just be satisfied allowing 53 ppg to those three, because they feel that the erratic Rafer Alston, not entirely healthy Courtney Lee, slumping JJ Redick, and 6th man Mickael Pietrus will have a tough time making up the difference. Should those four play just as they have the past seven games, the Magic will have a tough time breaking the century mark anytime this series.
2. Don't settle for jump shots
If the Magic looked like an impenetrable force against the Celtics, its only because they only ever had three players at most to worry about on the court at once - that certainly won't be the case against the Cavs. An exceptionally patient, remarkably efficient offense that ends just about every possession with a good, high percentage shot, Cleveland should run circles around the Magic. Even the one distinct defensive advantage the Magic have - defensive POY Dwight Howard down low - is all but made inconsequential by the fact that Zydrunas Ilgauskas is a good four inches taller, and their second best defender, Courtney Lee, has seen his minutes nearly cut in half since his injury. The way I see it, the Cavs should have no problem dropping 105-115 every game if they remain patient on offense.
3. Stay hungry, my friends
If the Cavs had become complacent yet, they wouldn't have won every game by double digits, so its practically useless warning this Finals-destined team of lackadaisical play...but you never know when complacency might kick in. After they likely take a 2-0 series lead, they had better play even tenser than before if they want to realize their potential as a team.

Magic 3 Keys to Winning

1. Shooters must become playmakers
Its easy to think of the Magic as a band of 6-10 shooting guards who want nothing more than to chuck three pointers and shoot contested fade-aways to their heart's content, but don't get it twisted: when wings Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu make an effort to get teammates involved, this is one of the most dynamic offenses in the league. When either Lewis or Turkoglu record at least 4 assists - just 4 - the Magic are 6-1 this postseason. If you need further evidence of Magic's thriving on these scorer's getting their teammates involved, look no further than their win over the Celtics in game 7, in which the two combined for 16 assists in the team's 19-point win in Boston.
2. Mix and match on LeBron
Shutting down LeBron is an impossibility, which the Magic have probably already accepted, but they can still neutralize him for short, but extremely meaningful stretches. By using their uncommon size, the Magic can rotate the taller and longer Turkoglu (6-10) and Lewis (6-10) on James, while occasionally mixing in the athletic and energetic Mickael Pietrus (6-7), in order to prevent James from settling into a comfort zone where he feels out the defender and proceeds to abuse him for just about the entire game. Plus, the length of Turkoglu and Lewis will undoubtedly encourage him to drive more often, a scenario the Magic should feel more comfortable with with the defensive POY guarding the hole.
3. Utilize depth
For their many shortcomings, the Magic are undoubtedly the deepest team left in the playoffs, which extends about 10 deep on a nightly basis. The Magic have 8 players averaging at least 15 mpg this postseason (to the Cavs' 6), and each player knows his role on both ends of the floor. This is one of the few areas in which the Magic might have the Cavs beat.

Floor Game

Even if Mo Williams (14.8 ppg) and Delonte West (13.3 ppg) weren't playing at their top their game, they're still matching up against a PG - Alston - coming off a 7-game series in which he averaged 7.7 ppg, and a rotations of SG's - Lee and Redick - who are, respectively, ailing, and on a disastrous tear form beyond the arc. This isn't a contest.
Advantage: Cavs

Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu are playing great basketball, but so, unfortunately, is Lebron James, whose playoff averages of 32.9-9.8-6.8 and 2.0 spg while shooting 53.2% from the field are the stuff legends are made of. Factor in the contributions of Anderson Varejao, and the Cavs combo significantly outscores (38.5-33), rebounds (17.1-11), and defends (3.25 spg - 1.86 spg, 2.1 bpg - 0.9 bpg) the Magic's 2nd and 3rd best players.
Advantage: Cavs

Here, the Magic take their revenge. Though he might find maneuvering his way around the taller Ilgauskas an inconvenience, Dwight Howard is astronomically better than any big the Cavs could match up against him. His numbers against the Celtics were bananas, downright Moses Malone like, as he tore down an inhuman 17 rpg.
Advantage: Magic

This is a very, very close one. The Magic are certainly deeper, but what the Cavs bring to the table is arguably more appealing, especially in terms of experience. In the end, though having four or five players capable of dropping 4-6 points wins out, though, the Magic's band of Mickael Pietrus, Anthony Johnson, Marcin Gortat, Tony Battie and (occasionally) JJ Redick just barely winning out.
Advantage: Magic

The Magic win 2 of these 4 categories, but I don't see it being that close - I think its hard for any team to have much better guards and forwards and lose in such a series. That said, here's My Prediction: Cavs in 5

It is likely that the Magic will take one at home, but the odds of their winning in Cleveland are about 0-5% - literally 0-5%, for the Cavs, including playoffs, have won 95% of their home games this season. They're in such an unconscious zone right now that I don't think any Western Conference power they face in the next round will have a chance at swiping one either.

What do you have to say to that, Dwight?

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