The Orlando Magic deserves credit, much more than I’m willing to give them.
En route to their 2-1 series lead over Cleveland following Sunday night’s 99-89 win in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Magic have brushed up against blown leads and big comebacks, the defending champions and the reigning MVP. They’ve won five road games, lost four times on a last-second shot, have lived and died by the three, overcome two 40-point games by LeBron James and one suspension to its best player.
But their luck seems ready to run out. The Cavaliers stand on dangerous ground in this series, no doubt. Cleveland was 1.0 seconds away from walking into Game 4 on Tuesday in Orlando looking to avoid a shocking sweep. As it stands, the Magic can take a commanding 3-1 lead.
Here’s why they won’t. The Magic are still far too flawed. But with Denver’s inconsistency and instability flaring up right on cue out West, Orlando has evolved into the darlings of the Conference Finals. Looks like lipstick on a pig from this view.
The Magic still is a jump shooting team. Their starting point guard still is Rafer Alston, who has the potential to make any number of boneheaded decisions on any given possession. They still don’t have a consistent low post scoring option, which will at some point catch up to them down the stretch. The guy who is supposed to be that consistent low post scorer, Dwight Howard, looks like his emotions are starting to bring out the worst in him at costly times. They’re banking on overachieving role players Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis – both of whom the Cavs have yet to figure out – to close out games.
And oh yeah, they still look utterly stumped by James, who eventually is going to get something from his teammates and finally be rewarded for making the right play.
In no way is Orlando playing its best ball. But in every way are the Cavs playing their worst.
The Cavs were the best defensive team in the regular season, holding opponents to a league-low 91.3 points per game and finishing tied for first with Boston in limiting opponents to 43.1 percent shooting, including a league-low 33.3 percent from behind the 3-point line.
Cleveland has allowed Orlando to shoot 49 percent from the field, including 41.6 percent from behind the arc, and average 100 points. The Cavs’ offense, meanwhile, has regressed each game, going from 106 points and five wine and gold jerseys in double-digit scoring in Game 1 to 89 points and just three players in double-digit points in Game 3.
“It’s amazing that we’re still in games at times,” said Cavs guard Mo Williams. “And I think ya’ll know why. It’s No. 23.
“We got to get back to Cavalier basketball.”
Maybe it’s time for Cleveland to forget about Dwight Howard and allow throw more one-on-one post defense at the man-child than he’s ever seen, anything to keep the Magic’s 3-point gunners from getting hot. Perhaps it’s time for the team that blew out teams by a league-best 8.92 margin to revert to outscoring Orlando. Or maybe James should just shift some of that unconditional trust of his teammates back on himself and will this series to a 2-2 deadlock.
The Magic, through all their ups and downs in these playoffs, has shown they can become complacent. Did so in Round One when they toyed with Philadelphia and allowed the Sixers a 2-1 series lead before closing them out in six. Did it again in the Conference Semifinals when Boston took back-to-back victories in Games 4 and 5 on Glen “Big Baby” Davis’ game-winning jumper in Orlando and the Celtics’ 17-3 run to end the game in Boston.
Something is sure to catch up with Orlando. The Magic have too many blemishes on their record to advance this cleanly.
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