East Finals Preview: Cavaliers vs. Magic
For all of the Cavaliers' success this year -- both posting the league's best record and winning their first eight games of the playoffs -- the Magic have actually held their own in head-to-head matchups, winning two of three games in the regular season and seven of 10 the last three years.
Much like your 401k, though, past results do not guarantee future performance, but at least the Magic won't come into this series questioning whether they have what it takes to win a single game against the vaunted Cavs, which was exactly the situation the dysfunctional Pistons and the injury-depleted Hawks faced in the first and second rounds, respectively.
How Cleveland Can Win
The Magic have historically done a good job against the Cavs the last three years, but their success hasn't come at the expense of LeBron James, who's averaged 29 points, 8.1 boards and 7.1 assists over that span, including 31.0, 9.7 and 7.0 in three games this year. This isn't terribly surprising -- the Magic, much like the rest of the NBA, doesn't have anybody that can matchup with James. Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis are lanky but lack speed (and, well, defensive instincts), meaning, if the need arises, LeBron should be able to win at least one game all by his lonesome.
And while nobody will ever confuse Zydrunas Ilgauskas with one of the most dynamic big men in the league, he's still absolutely enormous and should do a better-than-average job at preventing Dwight Howard from getting too comfortable in the paint. With Anderson Varejao and Ben Wallace assisting from the bench, Howard will face a steady stream of physical defenders who love to push, shove, lean on and generally irritate the man they're tasked with guarding -- in other words, frustration and foul trouble will be a concern.
How Orlando Can Win
Orlando needs a lot of things to go right for them to have a chance at the upset, but none are more important than staying hot from beyond the arc. As Tom Ziller explained, Orlando's offense can be absolutely deadly when the Magic swing the ball and find the open outside shooter. It's how the Magic won 59 games in the regular season, and it's been the secret of their success against Cleveland the last few years -- since Stan Van Gundy arrived, the Magic have averaged 28.5 three-point attempts in seven games against the Magic, converting at a 40% clip.
Assuming Howard is able to get his high-percentage shots in the paint, Cleveland will be under a ton of pressure to make smart decisions every trip down the court in order to keep up. As luck would have it (good or bad, depending on who you're rooting for), the Magic and Cavs finished third and fourth in the league, respectively, in effective field goal percentage by the slimmest of margins -- .519 to .520 -- so the Magic could have everything go right for them offensively and still end up in a dogfight.
In the end, it'll come down to Orlando's defense and whether Van Gundy can find somebody -- anybody -- on his roster capable of preventing LeBron from getting into the paint with a full head of steam. Needless to say, it's a tall order, even with the reigning Defensive Player of the Year hanging out near the rim as a last resort.
Video Clip to Get You Pumped
Once upon a time, the Magic defied the odds and defeated the league's golden child / marketing machine to advance to the NBA Finals. Of course, that was back in 1995, when Michael Jordan played just 17 regular season games after giving up baseball before showing rust and being upstaged by Penny and Shaq in the playoffs. LeBron James isn't rusty, and he's certainly not looking out of sorts in a No. 45 jersey, but why quibble over details?
Stud of the Series
Need you even ask? LeBron James has been the stud of the entire playoffs -- a full head, shoulders and torso above every other player in the postseason. He's averaged 32.9 points, 9.8 boards, 6.8 assists and 2.0 steals, contributing toward an outlandish 41.8 PER. The next best PER of the postseason? Tony Parker, who put up a 29.5 over five games in the first round.
Not that LeBron needs help getting his name in the lights, but the only reason people aren't talking about what he's accomplished thus far in a historical context is because his team has taken care of business too quickly for anyone to notice.
Just for reference, nobody else in the history of the NBA has posted a 40 PER over an entire postseason, at least not while averaging more than 15 minutes a game. In fact, only two other players have posted a PER of 34 or greater: Hakeem Olajuwon, who managed a 39.0 PER over four games in the 1988 playoffs, and Reggie Miller, who posted a 31.0 PER in 1996, albeit by playing in just a single game. In other words, LeBron is firmly walking in uncharted territory.
Neither team has a heralded backcourt, but Rafer Alston and J.J. Redick can't hold a candle to Mo Williams and Delonte West, at least not with Orlando's defense already preoccupied trying to slow down LeBron. The Cavs essentially have three point guards on the floor when James, West and Williams are on the floor -- all capable of making plays for a teammate, penetrating to the rim or stepping back for a three. Both Alston and Redick have had their moments this postseason, but they've also been downright terrible at times.
Everything I've seen from the Cavs -- eight straight wins by double-digits, the largest point differential (16.8) in the playoffs -- has convinced me they're a team on the mission, and I think there's a very good chance they don't lose a single game before the NBA Finals. While the Magic have been scrapping with their backs against the wall in a seven-game series, the Cavs have been resting patiently.
Rust is overrated; Cavs in four. That said, the Magic tend to play better when everyone in the world has counted them out, so this could theoretically go five, maybe six. Either way, the Cavs will be representing the East in the Finals.