Saturday, May 23, 2009

All Even

As a 33-year-old Cleveland sports fan, Wednesday night was pretty hard to take, but heartbreak after heartbreak for 45 years has taught me not to be surprised to see the Cavs blow a 16 point lead and lose to an Orlando Magic team that was supposed to have no business taking on the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals. After seeing a 23 point Cavs lead evaporate in game two, we know that the Magic are for real.

Fortunately, so is LeBron James:

With the Magic leading by two with one meager second left on the clock, Mo Williams dished a picture perfect inbounds pass to LeBron, who, with a feint to the hoop, had gained a step and a half on defender Hedo Turkoglu. In one motion, LeBron caught, turned, and, fading away to his left, buried perhaps the most clutch shot of his career.

Series tied. The greatest moment in Cavs history? Some are calling it that. Let's not forget the team that went on an amazing ride to the finals in 2007. But this ranks real, real high on the list.

Euphoria filled the arena when that ball rattled home, but there is not a lot of time for celebration between games. As reality sets it, the Cavs have a lot to worry about, like their inability to sustain double-digit leads on their home court. Their weariness after one and a half quarters of high-energy basketball. Their utter helplessness contesting Orlando's half-court sets. These are the trends that have the Cavs fighting for their playoff lives, but, in spite of the dark clouds looming over a series that almost everyone predicted the Cavs would win, there are some rays of light as the team makes its way to Orlando for game three.

Fatigue. There was a lot of talk about the Cavs being rusty after a nine-day layoff. Turns out that fatigue, not rust, is the problem. See how the Cavs sprinted out to huge leads in both games, only to see them melt away slowly from about the middle of the second quarter? In game one the Cavs gave up 108 points, Mike Brown was forced to burn a valuable timeout in the fourth quarter just so his team could catch its collective breath. The final buzzer saw LeBron cramping up and limping off the floor. The team was completely gassed.

Now, in Orlando the Cavs are battling a team that is in tip-top game shape. The Magic played a lot of basketball while the Cavs rested and waited and tried to simulate game situations in practice. That simply cannot be done. At some point you have to play an actual game.

The Cavs gave up 95 points in game 2. Not good, but better. They got a couple more stops. Their rotations were a little crisper. They were not as gassed in the second half. The kept moving the ball and running plays on offense.

My guess is the fatigue factor will begin to shift to the Cavs' favor as the series wears on. The Cavs will get their legs under them in the second half while the Magic will start to feel the impact of playing so many physically and emotionally draining games.

Mo. People keep talking about the matchup problems that the Magic present with their long, tall shooters, but what about the problems our scorers present? Mo Williams has been in a terrible shooting slump for 7 out of 8 quarters in this series. He hasn't shot the ball all that well during the whole postseason, really. But did you notice that he made 3-5 shots in the fourth quarter in game two? Including a clutch, contested three and a key floater in the lane? If Mo's offense wakes up, it will create huge issues for the Magic, who have no one to match his quickness and ability to set up teammates. Those shots in the fourth quarter showed me a lot, and I'll stand behind a guy who can put three quarters of bad basketball behind him when the game is on the line.

Mike Brown. Flaws in the Cavs defense have been exposed, particularly after halftime. I maintain that it is in part because of Cavalier fatigue, which leads to slow rotations, runouts for the Magic and more open looks in general. You have to give credit to Stan Van Gundy and the Magic, however. This is an explosive offensive team that has an bullying big man surrounded by shooter after shooter after shooter. However, the Cavs have a legitimate defensive genius in Mike Brown. He has made adjustments in the playoffs before, and I think he'll do the same as the series progresses. Look for the game to slow down for both teams, and shift into a Cavaliers style, low-scoring, grind-it-out type of contest. If not, the series will go back to Cleveland 3-1 with Orlando looking to close out the east.

Sasha Pavlovic. McBone has been a staunch Sasha Pavlovic supporter since waaay back in 2007, when he was the starting two guard on a team that went to the NBA finals. I'm not saying Sasha should start, and I know the flaws in his game, but I remember the job he did on Vince Carter and Richard Hamilton two years ago, and I know his value increases with increased minutes. Considering the size of Orlando's backcourt, I think the Cavaliers could benefit from a muscular 6'7" swingman who can knock down an outside shot. Sasha gave the Cavs a boost with his 9 points (four more than the entire bench scored in game 1), and he is certainly a better option in this series than the slow Wally Szczerbiak or the small Daniel Gibson. For the Cavs to have any chance in Orlando, the first guys off the bench have to be Joe Smith and Sasha Pavlovic, and both must produce.

LBJ. And, lest we forget, we have LeBron James. They don't.

Going forward from here, I see this as the bottom line: the Cavs will not win two games in Florida. My guess is they will lose one of them by double digits. They absolutely must win one, though, or it'll be wait till next year time once again for Cleveland fans.



Anonymous said...

I don't know, Nate. The rest of the Cavs better step up, especially the front court. Otherwise, they just might be joining the off-season with the C's.


Nate and Jeff Bowler, Co-Captains said...

The Cavs are playing like sissies. They look tight and uncomfortable while the Magic are having a ball. Series over. 4-1 Magic.