It's Not Magic, It's Execution

May, 31, 2009
5/31/09
1:16
AM ET

Posted by Kevin Arnovitz

The Cavs and Magic each came into the series with a full playbook of good offensive material that worked all season -- which is why they're playing basketball in late May. The difference came down to which team better executed its stuff. Saturday night, it wasn't even close.

Dwight Howard
Dwight Howard: Turning Defenses Inside Out (John Raoux/NBAE via Getty Images)
Game 6 was a full exhibition of Dwight Howard's best attributes. He got 40 touches in the paint -- a series high -- and his 40-point output included nine points off put-backs, 12 from the free throw line, sharp dribble moves, soft running hooks, and buckets in transition. He bullied his way to the rim at will, and Cleveland had no recourse to stop him.

As dominant as Howard was -- he chalked up twice as many points as Orlando's second-highest scorer -- the Magic's clincher was a collective effort offensively. What's striking about Orlando is how many different things they execute well offensively -- to say nothing of their top-ranked defense. Orlando gets a lot of praise for its pick-and-roll game, which is spearheaded by Hedo Turkoglu and Dwight Howard. Orlando is special in that everyone in their rotation can perform this part of the offense. 

Just look at how Orlando amassed its first double-digit lead:

  • [2nd quarter, 7:41] It's not the patented 3-5 Turkoglu/Howard screen-and-roll. Howard isn't even in the game, nor is starting point guard Rafer Alston. Rotund backup point guard Anthony Johnson is at the controls. Rashard Lewis steps out to the top of the floor, and slips a screen to Johnson's right. When Johnson recognizes that Wally Szczerbiak and Daniel Gibson have gotten crossed up on the switch, he shuttles the ball over to Lewis, who has an open driving lane to the hoop. Varejao challenges Lewis underneath, but Lewis puts the ball in his off hand, contorts himself, then lays it in. 

There's nothing ingenious about what Orlando does. It's the flexibility of the team's personnel that makes the Magic impossible to defend. Everyone is an interchangeable part in the offense. Each of the six guards and forwards can shoot the three, pass the ball, and put it on the deck. Howard appreciates this, and has gotten very shrewd at letting his teammates make plays for him. He checks in immediately after Lewis' hoop, and converts on the very next possession: 

  • [2nd quarter, 6:20] Johnson is still at the point. He gets a strong screen up top from Lewis, then penetrates into the paint. Howard, meanwhile hangs out just off the mid-post on the left side.  The instant Cleveland's interior defense collapses on Johnson, he pitches the ball off to Howard, who now has a huge amount of space to muscle his way to the rim. Anderson Varejao tries to reestablish his presence underneath, but Howard is too quick. By the time Varejao shifts his attention back to the big man, Howard is already into his drive. His running hook from five feet is soft.

    This is the Howardized variation of the drive-and-kick, only with the ball ending up in the hands of the big man near the basket rather than a shooter out on the arc. 

Orlando uses its bread and butter to establish control of the game just before halftime, and Howard gets the assist:

  • [2nd quarter, 4:55] The Orlando 4-out/1-in: The single most effective offensive scheme we've seen from any team in the postseason. Everyone on the floor and on both benches knows it's coming.

    When Howard gets the ball off the left block, the Cavs promptly send a double-team, as Delonte West joins Varejao on the cover. Howard has gotten so good at sizing up the backside of the defensive zone in this situation. He takes a looks at his four shooters spread around the arc. At first glance, there isn't much there. For all of Cleveland's problems this series, they're still one of the best defensive teams in basketball, and they rotate very well early in this set. Orlando realizes that in order to work itself an open shot, someone has to scramble the defense. 

    That's when Courtney Lee dives hard for the basket from the top of the arc. LeBron James, who has been monitoring the top of the floor, has no choice but to pick up Lee on the cut. When Lee cuts, Lewis fills that open space up top, where Howard finds him for the wide open three-pointer. Lewis drains it. He finishes with 18 points on the night, capping off a solid series. 
What disintegrates the Cleveland defense? Lee's basket cut. A less-disciplined team would settle for a mediocre shot after their first option doesn't get them the open look they want. Not the Magic. They're so patient, so confident that they can get something out of the possession, even if it takes them deep into the shot clock. Lee never actually touches the ball, yet he's the catalyst. How many teams execute an offense where off-the-ball players routinely create shots?

This is just a sampling. Roll through the game tape, and you can find possessions like these everywhere: Another set run through Howard on the left block that results in a full swing of the ball around the perimeter for an open three-point shot by Alston [2nd quarter, 1:27], a Turkoglu/Gortat screen-and-roll that produces a kickout to a wide open Mickael Pietrus [2nd quarter, 8:04], Howard doing his best Pau Gasol imitation with a pass over his shoulder out of the block to Pietrus on the basket cut [3rd quarter, 0:22].

All season, skeptics questioned whether Orlando played a style of basketball that was conducive to winning a championship -- as if winning is a question of aesthetics. In modern basketball, we've seen fast teams, slow teams, motion offeneses, pick-and-roll outfits all win NBA Championships. No matter what their offensive agendas, these teams had one thing in common: They executed.

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