Magic make James-less Cavaliers disappear
By TOM WITHERS
AP Sports Writer
CLEVELAND (AP) Parked in the foul lane, Dwight Howard gave a two-hand shove to Cleveland’s mascot, Moondog, who turned his tail and taunted Orlando’s star center.
The crowd cheered. Howard laughed.
It was play time.
Next time, things will be much more serious between the Magic and Cavaliers.
Mickael Pietrus scored all 12 of his points in the fourth quarter and Jameer Nelson hit a big 3-pointer in the closing minutes as Orlando geared up for the postseason with a 98-92 win Sunday over Cleveland, which gave LeBron James another day off to rest for the NBA playoffs.
Shortly before tip-off, the Magic learned that James would sit out his third straight game and that Shaquille O’Neal still wasn’t ready to come back from an injury.
“The air went out of our locker room when they found out he (James) wasn’t playing,” coach Stan Van Gundy said. “When those guys weren’t playing, we had a lot of guys that didn’t want to play, either. We wanted to play against their team and we really weren’t interested in playing against the other guys, unfortunately.”
Cleveland’s regular-season home finale was little more than a glorified exhibition game as both teams went through the motions while gearing up for the postseason to begin next weekend.
“We’re just trying to get to the playoffs as healthy as possible,” said Cleveland’s Mo Williams, who scored 19 with nine assists. “We know that come next Saturday or Sunday, we aren’t going to have to worry about it.”
Pietrus was a matchup nightmare in the playoffs last season for Cleveland, averaging 13.9 points in the Eastern Conference finals when the Magic eliminated the Cavs in six games. The 6-foot-6 swingman made a pair of 3s to open the fourth quarter Sunday and Nelson delivered his dagger 3 with 2:53 left to put Orlando ahead 96-88.
Howard scored 22 points with 13 rebounds and six blocks. He grasped why the Cavaliers decided to sit James, but wished his Olympic teammate had dressed.
“We all wanted to play against those guys, but we understand what they’re trying to do,” Howard said. “It would’ve been fun. I think everybody wanted to see the Cavs with all their guys and the Magic with everybody playing. It was disappointing, but I’m glad we got the win.”
Losing to the LeBron-less Cavs wasn’t an option.
“It would’ve been embarrassing,” Howard said.
Delonte West had 21 points, Antawn Jamison 19 and Zydrunas Ilgauskas 12 for the Cavaliers, who finished the regular season 35-6 at home.
James watched the game from the bench along with O’Neal, who has been out since tearing a thumb ligament Feb. 25 and hasn’t been cleared by doctors to play. Cleveland anticipates having him in the postseason and will need the 7-foot-1 center to get past Howard and the Magic.
The Cavaliers had no answer inside during last year’s series against Orlando’s big man, who muscled his way to the rim past Ilgauskas, Ben Wallace, Anderson Varejao and anyone else in his way. O’Neal, if he’s healthy, believes he can neutralize the Magic’s Superman.
“They’ve added a little more bulk on the inside and they all try to make it tough for us to get in the paint,” Howard said. “We’re still going to play our brand of basketball – shoot 3s, play inside and out and play defense.”
Cleveland coach Mike Brown sat James again, giving the reigning MVP – and almost certainly the next one, too – additional rest for the playoffs. Dressed in a beige sports coat and matching slacks, James sat at the end of Cleveland’s bench and even took a turn behind the TV microphone during the first quarter of ABC’s national broadcast.
During his interview, James discussed the Cavs’ roster upgrades and said the team’s biggest acquisition, O’Neal, has lost 20 pounds since getting hurt.
The Cavs have been hoping to get O’Neal back to shake off some expected rust, but Brown said team doctors have not yet cleared the 17-year veteran.
James and O’Neal left Quicken Loans Arena without speaking to reporters.
Van Gundy wasn’t gloating about Orlando’s win, which tied the season series between the clubs who seem to be on a collision course at 2-2.
“We got a win, but nothing else,” he said. “It was a bad basketball game from our standpoint, but we won. I’m not going to complain. What else do I take from it? Nothing.”
The defending Eastern Conference champion Magic played their starters at least 24 minutes and worked out a few late-season kinks. Orlando has wrapped up the No. 2 seed in the East and can still beat out the Los Angeles Lakers for the second-best overall record, which would give the Magic home-court advantage if the two teams meet in the finals for the second straight year.
“We’re trying to win every game, because they will all mean something in the end,” said Vince Carter, who had six points on 3-of-10 shooting. “I think we’re ready to go.”
NOTES: The Cavs sold out all 41 home dates for the first time and have 77 straight sellouts. … Orlando center Marcin Gortat of Poland honored fallen Polish President Lech Kaczynski by writing the fatal flight number on his sneakers and writing Kaczynski’s name on the tape around his wrist. Kaczynski and dozens of political, military and religious leaders were killed in a plane crash Saturday. … Van Gundy has been promoting Howard for league MVP, but isn’t holding out much hope. “We all know how the vote is going to go,” Van Gundy said. “LeBron will win the MVP every year until he retires. For the next eight or 10 years, LeBron basically has to go into the year and lose the MVP award.”
Updated April 11, 2010