Even though there are roughly eight weeks before the playoffs begin, this was a critically important ballgame for the following reasons:
• After getting thoroughly outclassed by the Cavs in their previous two meetings, the Magic proved that they are indeed capable of beating the Eastern Conference leaders.
• With their third consecutive loss, the Cavs’ aura of invincibility has vanished.
HOW AND WHY THE CAVS LOST
Although LeBron shot a total of 12-for-25 for 33 points, he hit only three of his 11 jumpers. This allowed the Magic to gang up on him whenever he drove the ball into the paint, a tactic that was most effective late in the fourth quarter when LeBron’s kick-out passes resulted in many more perimeter misses than makes. Overall, the Cavs were only 3-for-16 from 3-point range. Shaq did muscle his way to shoot 9-for-10 and score 20 points in the lane. But Cleveland absolutely must shoot a decent percentage from 20 feet and beyond to ever hope to make another NBA Finals appearance.
Trading for Antawn Jamison was supposed to cure their perimeter shooting woes. However, 10 of his game-total of 19 points came on either post-ups — where he buried Rashard Lewis — or on drives to the hoop after wing isos.
Otherwise, Anthony Parker, Mo Williams, Daniel Gibson and Delonte West combined to shoot 4-for-23, with the majority of their misses coming from outside.
In their win over Orlando in Cleveland 10 days ago, the Cavs mostly let Shaq defend Dwight Howard without offering any assistance. This same strategy was duplicated in the game at hand and with similar semi-positive results. In direct confrontations against Shaq, Howard produced only eight of his 23 points, had three shots blocked, made two of six free throws, registered one assist, nailed a 16-foot hard-angled bank-shot and hit the top of the backboard with an 18-footer.
In addition, Howard abused Anderson Varejao for eight points — but also had another two shots swatted. Howard’s other hoops came on put-backs and/or duck-ins when his defender was forced to rotate to a wide-open baseline shooter.
Still, it wasn’t Howard who beat them.
In their last victory over the Magic, the Cavs threw flash-doubles at nearly very high screen-and-roll with great success — except when Orlando’s guards fanned instead of turning the corner and wound up with open jumpers. This time, both Jameer Nelson and J.J. Redick learned their lessons well and looked to shoot before looking to drive. Meanwhile, the Cavs never made suitable defensive adjustments, such as aggressively doubling the ball and then executing the appropriate interior rotations.
For the game, the Cavs made at least twice as many late or nonexistent defensive rotations as good ones. Do they miss Zydrunas Ilgauskas’ length back there?
But, for the most part, their faulty defense of high screen-and-rolls was not what beat them.
As their lowly total of 15 assists on 38 baskets demonstrates, the Cavs depended too much on isos — for Shaq, Jamison, West, J.J. Hickson and naturally for LeBron. They were therefore guilty of insufficient ball movement and too much dribbling. But that’s still not the primary reason why they lost.
In fact, the verdict went against them because coach Mike Brown waited too long to make an absolutely critical defensive adjustment — and then failed to make a full enough commitment.
Vince Carter wandered through most of the game like a stranger in paradise. Turning his back to the ball on defense. Reaching instead of moving his feet. Making overly cautious decisions when dribbling to his right over staggered foul-line screens. Forcing and missing a variety of off-balanced shots. And generally playing with a marked absence of passion.
Credit a resumption of Parker’s adhesive defense, and blame Carter for simply not asserting himself.
However, in the last five minutes, the Magic ran a series of wing screen-and-rolls involving Carter and Nelson, who were defended by Parker and Williams. Time and time again, the Cavs switched and wound up with Williams guarding Carter, who immediately established a formidable presence in the low-post. The result was a series of power layups and kick-back passes to Nelson that turned the game in the home team’s favor.
When Brown finally pulled Williams to the bench and had LeBron defending Nelson so that any switched assignments wouldn’t give Carter such a huge advantage in the low post, Nelson simply burned Parker with another trey as well as a sweet pull-up 20-footer. It was a good move by Brown, but it came too late and was ultimately insufficient. After getting repeatedly damaged by the same two-man game, the Cavs could at least have sent another defender into the mix.
HOW AND WHY THE MAGIC WON
As mentioned above, Carter responded positively to the responsibility of finishing the game in tandem with Nelson. Indeed, Stan Van Gundy challenged Carter, and he responded. Nelson’s drives-and-dishes, pull-ups and determined attacks at the rim constituted Orlando’s only dependable offense for most of the game.
Mickael Pietrus was forceful on offense — 13 points on 5-for-6 for shooting in 17 minutes — and on defense with two steals and one block.
Redick played his usual heady game, shooting 3-for-5 from the field for nine points.
Even the little-used Brandon Bass contributed six points in his 11 minutes of action.
Matt Barnes played as well as humanly possible in defense of LeBron, often denying him the ball and forcing him to take jumpers.
And Howard wasn’t at all intimidated by Super Shaq.
Instead, Howard was mostly interested in turning, facing and driving when confronted by Shaq in the low post. But he also commenced several moves with his back to the basket — a definite step up in Howard’s confidence, courage and intensity.
Although LeBron was his usual uncontrollable force when he powered his way to the basket, the Magic diligently clustered around him as soon as he stepped into the paint. The result was LeBron’s missing several complicated layups and amassing a total of five turnovers (to go with his six assists).
Like the Cavs, the Magic concentrated on iso situations, with 13 assists on their 37 hoops. However, Orlando differed from their opponents in their collective field goal accuracy — 50.7 percent to 46.3 — and by also making eight of 20 3-pointers.
Above all, the Magic maintained their poise even when down by double digits. And in the end-game, they turned a few tricks on offense that Cleveland hadn’t seen before and was therefore unable to solve.
In this latest — but positively not last — battle between these two ballclubs, the Magic won because Stan Van Gundy out-coached Mike Brown when it mattered most.
If you have a question or comment for Charley Rosen, please email email@example.com and he may respond in a future column.