It seems like a month has passed since the Cavaliers dispatched the Atlanta Hawks in 4 games. Now they have to face a real basketball team, as the Orlando Magic visit the Q for the first game of the Eastern Conference Finals. The Magic took two home games against the Cavs and lost a third meeting in Cleveland. The regular season means nothing at this stage, so let's focus on the Cavaliers' task at hand.
In the Magic they face a solid defensive team that likes to run and gun on offense. The Magic live and die by the three point shot, which usually means playoff death. What separates the Magic from other offensive minded clubs is that 6-11 beast in the middle, Dwight Howard. On defense, he has become perhaps the most feared frontcourt player in the league. He also is a proficient scorer in the paint. Flawless? No. Great? Maybe someday. The Cavs biggest obstacle to reaching the finals? Absolutely, yes.
Let's break down the matchups real quicklike:
PG: Mo Williams vs. Rafer Alston. When Jameer Nelson went down for the season, the Magic were lucky to fill the gap with a starting point guard. That said, Rafer Alston is a sorry substitute for Jameer Nelson. A marginal offensive player who tends to hold the ball too long, he is usually relieved of ballhandling duties by the slower than slow Hedo Turkoglu. Alston isn't much of a defender, either, which is why he was expendable to Houston at the trade deadline. Mo Williams has had a relatively quiet postseason so far, averaging almost 4 points below his average. If there is a time to explode on the scene, this is it Mo needs to get dribble penetration on this inferior player and use his ability to finish to draw Howard away from the basket. Mo is the superior player in every way, and if things pan out like they should, it will be a long series for Rafer Alston. Advantage: Mo fo sho
SG: Delonte West vs. J.J. Redick. Are you kidding me? Delonte West has probably been the second best Cavs player in the postseason, and has been arguably just as important the the Cavs' success as Mo Williams. Delonte is so locked in, you can almost see intensity waves coming off him. J.J. Redick is a guy who will make an open three pointer if you let him, which Delonte won't. Expect West to savage Redick all series long. Advantage: West.
SF: LeBron James vs. Hedo Turkoglu. From what I've seen, Turkoglu is the real catalyst of this team, and is called on to run the offense in the late stages of the game. This is not an ideal situation for the Magic, because Turkoglu has two speeds: slow and stop. Somehow, someway, he gets into the paint with all that slowness, but that will not happen if LeBron James is guarding him. If the Magic are forced to run their plays through a 6-10 forward, it will be a long series, because LBJ (who is really the most fearsome defender in the league) will put a stop to it at once. The one constant in this series is that the Cavaliers have one of the five greatest players in basketball history and the Magic don't. Has LeBron reached that level of greatness yet? We're going to find out. Advantage: MVP
PF: Anderson Varejao vs. Rashard Lewis. Here's where it gets interesting. Now, in Lewis you have a 6-10 forward who prefers to drift around the three point line. He has the ability to score in many ways, and the Magic will need him to if they want to win the series, but Lewis seems content at times to take the long jumpers. His defense? Well, he's long, and can bother players with his length, but I don't know. The problem here is that Varejao would prefer to play closer to the hoop. Not that Andy isn't game. He'll get into Lewis' face all night long, but this is a slight matchup problem. Advantage: Even.
C: Zydrunas Ilgauskas vs. Dwight Howard. Hoo-boy. Let's see. About the best scenario I can see is for the Cavs to force Howard to catch the ball further from 8 feet from the hole. Near the rim, Howard is the reincarnation of Shaq. Further out? Not so much. I mean, let's not kid ourselves here. Howard is going to get his numbers. He'll get his 20 points, 15 rebounds, 3 blocks just by showing up. The trick is to make him work. Foul him. Frustrate him. Make him shoot free throws in the clutch. Z can do the Cavs a big favor by making Howard guard him away from the hoop. Most likely, that won't happen too much, but anything that can open the paint for the Cavs guards and LeBron will help. The Cavs have a lot of fouls to give, and they certainly will be physical with the dude, but obviously this is the biggest mismatch in Orlando's favor. Advantage: Howard.
Bench: Joe Smith, Ben Wallace, Wally Szczerbiak, Daniel Gibson and Sasha Pavlovic vs. Courtney Lee, Mikael Pietrus, Tony Battie, Anthony Johnson, Marcin Gortat. Usually the Cavs bench is a huge difference maker. This is a pretty good matchup, as I see it. Joe Smith has been a sort of savior for the Cavs, providing a highly skilled large body with ample tools on both ends of the floor. I'm amazed at how quickly he became the Cavs 6th man, seeing how he joined the team in midseason. The there's Ben Wallace. Neither Smith nor Wallace are big or quick enough to handle Howard, but they can sure bump and foul the hell out of him. Howard, while hugely talented, does seem to play off emotion, whether for good or bad. Several times he's been frustrated into taking a swing at an opposing player this postseason, and the Cavs have no lack of players who will body up to the guy. Then you have the shooters, Gibson, Szczerbiak and Pavlovic. All three of them are streaky. Pavlovic is the superior defender. One of them at least will come up big when needed in this series, and don't be surprised to see more Wally and Sasha to match up with Orlando's size. Orlando, for its part, brings a pretty good backup center in Gortat. This guy actually has better post moves than Howard, in my opinion, and is not as big a dropoff as the Cavs might like. Anthony Johnson is a journeyman at best. Battie is a Joe Smith type who almost always is a positive presence in the lineup. Pietrus is just another three point chucker that the Cavs cannot afford to leave open. Lee is a promising rookie, another capable three point shooter, who, when Hedo fails, will be asked to guard LeBron. That does not bode well for the Magic. Advantage: Even.
Coach: Mike Brown vs. Stan Van Gundy. Here are two defensive minded coaches, both of whom have coached a lot of playoff baskeball. Based on past success, however, and considering the level of talent each has had to work with, I'm going to say...Advantage: Mike Brown. Sure no other Cavalier coach had a player like LeBron James. Even so, Mike Brown, after four seasons, is the most successful coach in Cavs history. I'll take his record of overachieving, of getting a group of guys to play coherent and crushing defense, over Van Gundy's record of underachieving anyday.
Prediction. The Cavs have the best player in the NBA. No, it's not Kobe. Sorry, Kobe fans. Dude is a great player, but LBJ has surpassed him by a longshot. The rest of this team ain't shabby, either. Remember that the Cavs have players on the bench who have started in the NBA finals. The combination of experience, talent and hunger should prevail here. Also don't forget, the Magic have logged about twice as many playoff minutes than the Cavs have, which should become a factor as the series wears on. The Magic will have to figure out some other way to score, because jacking the three isn't going to do it against a Cavs team that is brutal guarding the three. Yes, Howard is there in the middle. No, he is not LeBron. Combine all that with the fact that Cleveland has home court, and I predict the Cavs beat the Magic 4-2 to advance to the NBA Finals.