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Why the Magic, not the Cavaliers, are the Team to Beat in the East

It seems as though every sports writer and their grandmother have put the Cleveland Cavaliers into the NBA Finals to face the Los Angeles Lakers.  The West has a few people torn, but the general consensus is that the Lakers will come out on top.  Whether or not the Denver Nuggets will give them a series remains to be seen, but back in the East there is a team that has a very good shot at giving LeBron and the Cavs a run for their money: The Orlando Magic.

The Magic did not have any of the big storylines on the year like the Heat did with Dwyane Wade’s MVP-type season, or the Celtics did with Kevin Garnett’s injury, or the Cavs did with the can-do-no-wrong LeBron James.

Sure, Dwight Howard was a key contributor to the team this year as he picked up Defensive Player of the Year honors, but the award seemed to come and go this year unlike last year when Garnett won it.  Maybe it was the “under the radar” mentality that the Magic had despite winning 59 games, or maybe it was Dwight Howard’s big smile during every game.

Don't let the smile fool you: Dwight Howard is all business when he steps on the court.

Don't let the smile fool you: Dwight Howard is all business when he steps on the court.

It might have even been that they were not flashy at all this year.  Whatever the reason, the Magic are here to stay and are going to do some serious damage in the playoffs.

In the first round, the Magic overcame a few hiccups to take four of the last five games, including three straight, against a talented but injured Sixers team.  They did not look like world beaters in the first three games of the series.

Their defense was struggling and the Sixers had the swagger of a team looking to knock off Howard’s third-seeded squad, especially after two buzzer beating shots to take wins in the first three games of the series.

However, the thing to note was that even in the two losses, both games were close because of Orlando’s capability to step up and play critical defense when necessary.

In the second round, the Magic will match up against the most tired second seed in NBA history.  After seven overtimes and one of the most exciting (not best) playoff series of all time, many wonder what, if anything, the Boston Celtics have left in the tank.

Whatever they have left, they might want to get some more as they go up against six feet, 11 inches, and 265 pounds of rested, hungry Dwight Howard starting Monday.  I am going to make the prediction right now that the Magic and the Cavaliers will advance in their respective matchups, and that is where the fun starts.

Is it just me, or do the Orlando Magic have a striking resemblance to last year’s Boston Celtics?  Wait, hear me out!  They are not last year’s Celtics because they do not have potentially three Hall of Famers and are not the favorites in the whole league to win it all.  What they do have is the Defensive Player of the Year in Howard, who was arguably more efficient this year than Garnett was last year as he led the league in rebounds and blocks.

For a comparison’s sake, let’s call Rashard Lewis this year’s Ray Allen.  Lewis was stuck in Seattle forever, not only being hurt by the fact that he played for the Sonics but also because he played second fiddle to Ray Allen.

Say what you will about position differences, but in the end Rashard Lewis and Ray Allen's stats are very similar.

Say what you will about position differences, but in the end Rashard Lewis and Ray Allen's stats are very similar.

If you go back and look, Lewis’s stats this year are almost identical to Allen’s last year.  Despite Lewis playing more of a forward position (an added bonus), he is more than capable of playing shooting guard on the Magic and is the sharpshooter that does a little bit of everything.

Hedo Turkoglu, aside from percentages, matches up even better with Paul Pierce from last year and plays the same style of basketball that Pierce does.  While the leadership qualities might not be there for Turkoglu, the stats and performance are.

In Rafer Alston, you have a shoot-first point guard who takes care of the ball extremely well.  While Rajan Rondo was much more of a pass first point guard last year, the roles that each player had on their teams were more of the court general, making sure things were running smoothly as the “big three” took games over.

If anything, Alston is more valuable because he does what Rondo does and adds a few more points over the course of a game.  His field goal percentage, always a point of scrutiny for Alston, jumped over four points with Orlando while his attempts went down.  That’s always a good combination for a point guard.

Because of matchup combinations, Courtney Lee matches up with Kendrick Perkins as we round out the starters.  However, the more I think about it, the two of them matching up makes a whole lot of sense.

Lee is a rookie that has given big minutes, 25 per game, and produced with about eight points per game.  Last year Perkins was also the young gun on the team, in his fourth year seeing decent minutes and first year starting.  He averaged 24 minutes and poured seven points per game.  The similarities between the two are striking.

As we all know, one of the biggest reasons that the Celtics were able to take home last year’s crown was because of bench play.  James Posey was the unheralded star off the bench in the playoffs for the Celtics, and Mickael Pietrus is the closest thing to him.

While Posey was much more efficient last year, Pietrus offers versatility off the bench and is really capable of playing three positions on the court.  Also, being on Golden State really hurt Pietrus’s stock on defense but was one of the main reasons that he received minutes in Golden State.

As J.J. Redick proved in game six, he is more than ready to take on the role of Eddie House this year.  Despite the attention that House got last year, he only averaged 2.4 points per game and made less than one three-pointer in the playoffs.

Redick did not play in two of Orlando’s first round games, but had to start in game six due to Courtney Lee’s injury.  He finished the game with 15 points and drained five threes.  There is no reason why Redick can not come off the bench when a big shot is needed or Orlando is looking for shots.

Like any championship team, Orlando's bench will have to do more than just cheer if they want to be playing in June.

Like any championship team, Orlando's bench will have to do more than just cheer if they want to be playing in June.

Tony Battie is capable of giving the team good minutes, just like P.J. Brown did last year and the veteran Anthony Johnson has given the Magic quality and efficient minutes, just like Sam Cassell did last year.

While Marcin Gorat is hardly equal to Leon Powe and Glen Davis, he is still going to give good minutes for the Magic, as seen with his double-double in game six when Dwight Howard was suspended for his elbow on Sam Dalembert.

It’s true that Orlando is not nearly as deep as Boston was last year, but then again no team in the East is.  Not even the Cavaliers.  While you can make the argument that some of the comparisons are reaches and that Boston’s talent was better last year, the stats and situations do not lie and it is possible that Orlando makes the run Boston did last year.

Standing in Orlando’s way of an Eastern Conference Championship, barring a miraculous upset from Miami or Atlanta, will be the Cleveland Cavaliers.  Breaking down this potential matchup only gives me more confidence that Orlando will be standing tall at the end of the series.

Yes, I am writing this piece based on more than the fact that the Magic have defeated the Cavaliers twice this year against just one loss.  In the first game, Jameer Nelson was still running the show for the Magic and J.J. Hickson was getting decent minutes for the Cavs, with the Magic running away with the game in the second half led by Dwight Howard’s 22 points and 18 rebounds.

In the second matchup, the Magic went into the Quicken Loans Arena and hung with the best home team in the league until the final minute, when King James took the game over to take the 97-93 win.  Rafer Alston had been successfully traded after Jameer Nelson’s season ending injury took place, and starred in the game with 23 points to go with four rebounds and four assists.

In the finale of the season series, the Magic led by as much as 40 points as they coasted to an easy 116-87 victory, having seven players in double figures for the game.

In these three games, we saw that the Magic are able to, at the very least, hang with the Cavaliers on any given night.  More importantly, their play on the road shone brightly in Cleveland in a game that it took the eventual number one seed down to the final minute.

From a regular season standpoint, the Magic looked great in their games against Cleveland and were as competitive as any other team in the league, but an even stronger sign to Orlando’s potential success against Cleveland lies in the man-to-man matchups in the series.

First off, no one on the Cavaliers, or the NBA for that matter, can match the brute strength of Dwight Howard.  His size and quickness just add to his arsenal of lethal attacks that he puts on defenses every night.

Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Anderson Varejao will get the daunting task of matching up with Howard, but how they will stop him remains to be seen.  In three games this year, Howard has averaged 18.3 points and 14.7 rebounds to go along with 3.7 blocks.  His field goal percentage against Cleveland was higher than his season average and his turnovers were down.

Howard will have his way with the Cavaliers defense and get most any shot he wants. Everyone talks about Cleveland’s stellar defense, but as it has been all year, Orlando seems to go unmentioned.  LeBron James lives on driving to the hoop and finishing a one-on-one matchup at the rim or dishing off to an open teammate if help comes.

Dwight Howard has averaged almost four blocks per game in the three meetings against the Cavaliers this year.

Dwight Howard has averaged almost four blocks per game in the three meetings against the Cavaliers this year.

James will face the toughest matchup of the playoffs if he is matched up with Howard, and by not needing much help defense, Howard is more than up to the task of taking on James.  James is going to get his points, rebounds, assists, and Sportscenter Top 10 dunks.

Any team that tries to stop him will get beaten by Mo Williams or Delonte West as they watch LeBron, with three defenders on him, laugh at his wide open teammates shooting threes.  Howard can contain James and make sure someone else beats them, but not without a fight.

While Hedo Turkoglu will give up strength to most power forwards in the NBA, Anderson Varejao averaged just a little over nine points per game in the three meetings.  Because Cleveland’s forwards outside of James are not big scorers, Turkoglu’s matchup problems mean less than they would against other teams.

Rafer Alston is by no means an All-Defensive player, but he has stepped up his play on defense since joining the Magic, as most teammates of Dwight Howard could attest to.  Shutting down Mo Williams is second on the list to containing LeBron James and Alston will have to take on that task.

Having Courtney Lee back from injury might be the single most important ingredient, but thankfully due to the NBA’s ridiculous playoff system, the Magic would not play the Cavaliers for about two weeks.  That should be plenty of time for him to get healthy, but they will need it because while Lee is a great perimeter defender, his replacement Redick is a liability on defense.

While it remains to be seen whether someone can knock out the current Beasts of the East, the Magic are the most prepared team to take the job.  While getting past the Celtics will be no easy task, defeating the Cavaliers in a seven game series means that you would have to win a game on the road.

Only one other team (not counting Philadelphia) has done that: the Los Angeles Lakers.  It should be an interesting series and hopefully the games can continue to be as exciting as they were in round one.


May 3, 2009 Posted by | Basketball, LeBron James, NBA, NBA Finals, Orlando Magic | , , , | 3 Comments