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Master of Panic? Van Gundy's Magic Never Freaked Out

May 21, 2009 – 9:38 AM
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Tom Ziller

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Amid a midseason war of words, Shaquille O'Neal faulted his old coach Stan Van Gundy for his frenetic, loud sideline direction, infamously calling SVG a "master of panic." Magic players including Dwight Howard and Marcin Gortat have alluded to the accusation late this year -- a seemingly worrisome development.

But if Van Gundy's style does create unnecessary anxiety for Orlando, it sure didn't show up in Game 1 Wednesday.

Orlando's offense is predicated on making a ton of threes. This isn't completely dependent on opponents doubling down on Howard -- that helps, but the Magic also rely on penetration, ball movement and the transition game to get off clean looks from deep.

In the first half of Game 1, Cleveland covered the perimeter beautifully. By bringing only a late double on Howard in the post, the Cavaliers forwards and guards were able to stay home and restrict the number of open threes Orlando's wings could take.

But the Magic, trailing by double-digits for 2-1/2 quarters, didn't panic. At no point did the Magic begin jacking up contested threes, despite their deficit and dependency on the deep ball. The Magic took 21 three-point shots for the game. By my count, 18 of those were open. One of the three contested deep shots was Courtney Lee's (ugly) third-quarter buzzer heave. Orlando was completely in control of their offense the entire game.

The Magic won't take contested threes -- the first half proved as much. The studio crew (and color commentator Doug Collins) criticized Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu for being passive in the first half, but that's not quite right. They played Orlando's offense -- they didn't heave up bad shots that define "panic." They waited for the open shot, which was hard to come by in the first half as Cleveland almost conceded Howard's inside dominance in order to shut down the three-point line. You'd think designated scorers like Shard and Hedo would be gunning away down 16 on the road to the best team in the league. But that's just not Orlando's modus operandi. And it's a good thing!

But the Magic do adjust. No coach is said to be as prepared as Van Gundy going into any given game. His whiteboard is, of course, legendary, and his devotion to strategy nearly unmatched. And he figured out how to beat the vaunted Cleveland defense (besides continuing to feed Dwight, which worked well in the first half). Van Gundy had Turkoglu and Lewis work themselves into open shots inside the arc. Like a point guard and center, Turkoglu and Lewis ran the side pick-and-pop to perfection on a few possessions. The two scorers and Rafer Alston ran more draw-and-kick action than usually, using the size or quickness advantages created by Mike Brown's defensive strategy to use LeBron James as a free safety of sorts.

Brown put LeBron on Alston or Anthony Johnson so the MVP could help on Howard from behind. relying on the other wings to cover the three-point line. It worked ... until the penetration mismatches granted to Hedo and Lewis opened up the entire floor. Mickael Pietrus benefited from that. Alston benefited. And in the end, Lewis benefited.

Lewis' turnaround was particularly amazing. One of the league's most frequent and most accurate deep shooters, Lewis took only one three in the first half ... and it came in the opening minutes of the game. He ended up hitting three of four, including the game winner over an Anderson Varejao who inexplicably defended against the drive. Varejao is a smart, energetic defender. But the Cavaliers wanted to prevent the clean three all game long. On the last defensive possession -- coming out of a time-out in which LeBron yells "One stop!" at everyone -- Varejao gives up the open three to prevent penetration. Cleveland's defensive gameplan crumbled in the second half, and that final, fatal shot served as a perfect snapshot. LeBron made the right defensive play, staying in Turkoglu's face. Varejao did not. One mistake is all it takes.

It would never have gotten to that point -- to the point in which Rashard Lewis could take an open three with the game on the line -- if Van Gundy or the Magic had panicked and started jacking up contested threes instead of calmly, progessively opening up the floor with dribble penetrations and set plays. A panicked team would have blazed ahead with improbable, unsustainable hot shooting ... or lost by 30. Neither result would have the locker room warm and fuzzy: it's either a fluke or a blow-out. But a controlled, prepared team -- like Orlando in Game 1 -- came away with a narrow victory that actually means something today. The Magic know they have the chops, mental and otherwise, to beat the Cavaliers. They just need to execute.
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