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Friday, May 29, 2009
Magic doomed by slow start and finish

By Chris Sheridan
ESPN.com

Stan Van Gundy
Magic coach Stan Van Gundy tries to reinforce some pregame points in Game 5.

CLEVELAND -- The grease board in the visiting locker room had four one-line messages written on it after the game, the utterly perfect penmanship betraying the source of the man who wrote it: Orlando head coach Stan Van Gundy.

"48" read the first line, as in 48 minutes. (Translation: 24 to 30 minutes of good basketball, which was what the Magic played, ain't going to get you to the NBA Finals.)

"Defend" read the second line, and the word was circled. (Translation: You fall behind by 22 points in the first quarter -- the third time in this series in this building that the Magic have dug themselves a deep, early hole -- you aren't defending with the vigor of a team worthy of playing for the Larry O'Brien trophy.)

"Rebound" was the one-word entry on line No. 3, and we point to two quarters: The first and the fourth. Cleveland outrebounded Orlando 14-6 in the first period when the Cavs jumped out to that 22-point lead. And in the final stanza, the Cavs had four offensive rebounds (Orlando had none), helping account for their 13-2 advantage in second-chance points in the last 12 minutes of Cleveland's 112-102 victory Thursday night that cut Orlando's lead to 3-2 in the Eastern Conference finals.

"Take care of ball" was the last message, and you can trace the beginning of the end for the Magic in Game 5 to just prior to the midpoint of the fourth quarter when Orlando had a chance to seize control. The Magic were ahead 90-89 at the time, LeBron James had just missed a 3-pointer, and Rafer Alston sprinted downcourt as though he was trying to imitate Usain Bolt. The rock was poked away, the possession had lasted only 3 or 4 seconds, and the ball had most definitely not been taken care of.

A possession later, James scored inside and converted a three-point play for a 92-90 lead, and that was the beginning of the end. A 13-3 run ensued as Orlando went more than 4½ minutes without making a single field goal, the spurt ending when James drove on Mickael Pietrus and drew Dwight Howard's sixth foul with 2:22 remaining.

"To win this series, we have to play 48 minutes, which we haven't done once in this series except in Game 3," Van Gundy said. "We need to rebound and take care of ball, and I said it before the game: We're living and dying with our offense, which is a very, very dangerous thing. They brought a heightened defensive mentality, and we did not. They deserved to get this one."

There was no arguing with Van Gundy on that summation, because the Orlando Magic simply did not bring a close-out mentality -- at the beginning or the end -- to a game that could have kept LeBron James ringless for another summer.

But LeBron is a different sort of specimen, something you could get attuned to beforehand when he shrugged off a question about the pressure of this game by saying he had felt "way more" pressure at the end of last summer when he was preparing to play the Olympic gold-medal game against Spain.

"I've been in Games 5s, Game 7s, you name it. Any kind of pressure game," James said, chuckling at what he felt was the absurdity of the premise.

Well, if you watched this one all the way through the fourth quarter, you saw who thrived under that pressure and who crumbled. In the fourth, Dwight Howard had as many fouls (two) as field goals and rebounds combined (one each), Hedo Turkoglu found himself unable to operate nearly as fluidly with James moving over to defend him, Rashard Lewis managed to get off one single shot (a miss), and point guards Alston and Anthony Johnson shot a combined 0-for-4.

There were insinuations from the Magic -- but no outright accusations -- that the Cavs (specifically James) were getting too much superstar treatment from the refs, with Howard saying he was having to play too tentatively to avoid foul trouble, and Van Gundy making repeated references to trying to find a way to keep LeBron from going to the line 20 times (actually, it was 19) when he usually averages about half that number.

Yes, Orlando's comeback from that 22-point, first-quarter deficit was every bit as impressive as the comebacks the Magic engineered in Games 1 and 2 (they actually went ahead by eight in the third quarter, marking a 30-point swing).

But they had the finishing kick of a mule, not a thoroughbred, and they had run their biggest race of the season at half-speed with blinders on.

"I think we've proven to the nation that we have mental toughness and will fight back, but we don't need to do that by falling behind by 20 each night," Van Gundy said.

So they move on to Game 6 on Saturday, back at their own gym, a place where there hasn't been an NBA Finals game since Shaquille O'Neal was 40 pounds lighter and sporting a flattop haircut.

If memory serves correctly, they looked about as bad in that series (they were swept 4-0 by Houston) as they did for two huge stretches of this would-be closeout game.

But a closeout game it wasn't, and if the Magic want to avoid seeing that very same grease board in the visiting locker room at the Q on Monday night in Game 7, they'll need to take to heart in Game 6 those four important messages that Van Gundy printed out in his perfect penmanship.

Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Sheridan, click here.