Almost two weeks ago, the Orlando Magic were teetering on the brink of elimination, and big-time doubts rose about the structure of their offense. Now, with a win on Tuesday night against the Cleveland Cavaliers, they will be one game away from the NBA finals. It’s a dramatic turnaround, yet the Magic aren’t doing anything differently.
The doubters were out in force after the Magic lost Games 4 and 5 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Boston Celtics. The controversy centered on the Magic’s reliance on long-distance shooting. It’s true. During the regular season, the Magic took more than one-third of their shots from behind the arc; they averaged 26.2 treys of 78.2 shots per game. Then in those losses against the Celtics, the Magic shot 11-51 from behind the arc. “Live by the three, die by the three,” sang a dissonant chorus of many commentators.
The long-distance shot is a high-risk/high-reward strategy, and anyone who has ever rooted for a Rick Pitino-coached team in the NCAA tournament knows that one bad game can ruin a season with championship possibility. There’s an important difference at the professional level: The NBA playoffs are not a single-elimination tournament. And the three pointers—though important—are not the biggest reason the Magic win. That would be their defense.
It’s not just that Magic center Dwight Howard is Defensive Player of the Year; the Magic are the best defensive team in the NBA. During the regular season, Orlando limited teams to an average of 98.9 points per 100 possessions (Cleveland was second at 99.4), and the Magic’s 99-89 win Sunday night should have driven the point home. It wasn’t pretty, but Orlando’s defense outplayed Cleveland’s defense, and now the Magic lead two games to one in the series.
Although Cavs forward LeBron James, guard Mo Williams and Coach Mike Brown all talked to reporters after the game about the matchup problems the Magic present, Cleveland’s defense accomplished most of its checklist. The Cavs took away the three ball. The Magic only attempted 17 shots from behind the arc. Their main marksman, Hedo Turkoglu, shot 1-11 and took only one three-point shot (which he missed) and Rashard Lewis, who averages seven three-point attempts per contest, took only four. Howard played only 28 minutes due to foul trouble and grabbed only nine rebounds, seven shy of his post-season average. In addition, he took only nine shots and had to score most of his 24 points from the foul line, where he shoots only 60 percent (though, thanks to grooving to a pop tune in his head, he sank 14-19). Yet the Cavaliers not only lost, they lost by 10 points. Measured by this year’s standards, when riveting last-second shots are the norm, a 10-point loss is a blowout.
Orlando shut Cleveland down. In 98 possessions, the Cavaliers scored 89 points. James shot only 11-28 (1-8 from behind the arc). Williams managed only 5-16; center Zydrunas Ilgauskas shot an abysmal 3-10. The Cavaliers under Brown have been a stellar defensive team; what made them into a 66-win title threat this season was an offense that was more than just James; he had a little help from his team. Assistant coach John Kuester installed a system that made the Cavs’ flow a little like the title-era Bulls in the triangle, but without someone assigned to the Scottie Pippen role.
Against the Magic on Sunday, the Cavs looked like they left their wallets in El Segundo. It’s customary for most NBA teams to hand the ball to their superstar and get out of the way on key possessions late in the game. That was the Cleveland offensive strategy midway through the second quarter. James is scoring 43.2 percent of his team’s points. A team that reliant on one player will be pretty easy to defend.
On Tuesday night, the team with the best record in the NBA heads into a must-win game; an Orlando victory gives them an 88.9 percent chance of winning the series. The last time Cleveland faced the abyss, James saved them with an amazing last-second three-pointer at the buzzer. It’ll take a lot more than that this time.
The Cavaliers will have to diversify their offense overnight. In talking with reporters after Sunday’s game, Brown shrugged off his team’s offensive struggles, saying “some makeable shots didn’t go down.” But with Orlando’s rugged defense, there’s no guarantee that those shots will be available on Tuesday. Brown may need to reshuffle his rotation and find some folks who can shoot the rock. Otherwise, this year’s brilliant season by the Cavs will be one loss away from being yet another Cleveland sports disappointment.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.