LeBron's 43 Reminds Orlando That He Runs the Game
Tonight, after alternating between streaks of brilliant defense, forcing contested jumpers and off-step leaners, and terrible defense, pretty much letting Anderson Varejao dunk on every other possession, the Orlando Magic were up one point and decided to play good defense.
They denied the interior pass, they stayed with their man, and on the screen and roll, they played it perfectly. Spread the floor to deny the pick and pop, step over to cut off the baseline drive but don't step up too much to let the ball handler by you. As long as the ball-handler doesn't nail a pull-up three pointer, in motion, with two defenders in range, the Orlando Magic were going to win the ballgame and pull within three games of the top spot in the East, and hand Cleveland only its second loss at home. It would take a miracle. It would take an anomaly. It would take a heroic effort.
Or it would take just another night at the office for LeBron James.
As you've probably deduced at this point, James nailed just such a three to put the Cavs up two, the Magic would get whistled for a three-second violation (no, I'm not kidding) inside of a minute for what may be the second time in NBA history (I haven't checked), and the Cavs effectively put a nail in Orlando's top-seed hopes, 97-93.
It was a back and forth affair, with both teams rattling off long runs. Every time one side would gain an advantage, the other team would roar back. Orlando had a nine-point lead late in the third and a chance to burn a hole in the building. Then, just as he would do at the end of the fourth, James went out and calmly stroked two jumpers to kick start the Cavs comeback.
If it sounds like James was a one-man show, well, 43 points, 12 rebounds, 8 assists, and 4 steals will kind of give that impression. James was a one-man wrecking crew, and every time the Magic would pull away, he'd coral them back with long jumpers. His first half was spent mercilessly attacking the rim, including a blurring layup at the end of the 2nd quarter as time expired. It speaks to the strength of his MVP candidacy that LeBron has put together this year, and offers a response to the recent surge by Dwyane Wade. When James puts his mind to it? The league is caught under his boot, unless you play for the good West Coast team.
For the Magic, this has to be a remarkably frustrating loss. On the one hand, they got huge contributions from Rafer Alston and rookie Courtney Lee, who showed tremendous savvy. They had their offense clicking. Dwight Howard was a block machine (6 swats). And they managed to have the lead with less than a minute, forcing LeBron James into a long-range, pull-up jumper. Yet for all of that, they walk away empty-handed and staring at a likely second-round matchup with the Boston Celtics. On the other hand, they definitely proved that they can stand toe-to-toe with the best in the league on their floor and take it to the wire. Unfortunately, they don't hand out trophies for people who keep games close. There's a lot to consider in the Magic Kingdom.
Before we go, here's a quick question. Mr. Official man? You allow travels of epic length (like James' blatant three-step trot before dishing to Varejao late in the third). You let Howard set moving screens. You don't fall for Delonte West or Hedo Turkoglu's flop antics. But you decide the best way to handle this game is to call a three-second violation on the offense in a crucial possession under a minute? Really? I'm all for consistency, I really am. But ... really?