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ORLANDO, Fla. -- It's amazing how much perception can change in half a week.
Coming out of the trading deadline, the Eastern Conference playoffs shaped up as the Cleveland Invitational. With the Cavaliers' acquisition of Antawn Jamison, it seemed nobody could hope to topple a Cleveland team that was already running away from the rest of the East.
But after Sunday's 101-95 loss to the Cavs' rivals from Orlando -- and make no mistake, this has become one of basketball's biggest and baddest rivalries -- all those assumptions must be called into question. The loss was the third straight for Cleveland since acquiring Jamison -- their longest streak in two years -- even though the newest Cavalier played very well (19 points, eight boards, and a game-altering stretch to start the second half in which he scored on four straight possessions).
The Magic, meanwhile, are rounding into shape after a choppy start. The win was their 12th in 16 games, and they've moved up to third in the Power Rankings -- a spot ahead of Cleveland, for those who are keeping score. The Cavs, who entered the All-Star break with an imposing seven-game lead in the Eastern Conference, have lost some of their luster of invincibility by dropping all three games since the trade.
In the case of Sunday's game, everything about it was old school -- from the beat-down physicality in the post, to the Magic's reasserting their advantage over Cleveland, to the plays Vince Carter ran and executed to win it down the stretch.
Let's start with Carter, since he's been the bellwether for Orlando's progress this season. The Orlando shooting guard spent much of the season passively settling for forced 20-footers, and the first three quarters Sunday followed a similar pattern.
But in the fourth, Carter exploded. He broke out a retro dunk over Anderson Varejao from his "Half-Man, Half Amazing" days in the middle of the fourth to jump-start a 17-5 Orlando run, and the Magic never looked back.
"I kind of surprised myself," said Carter, who has had trouble finishing at the basket this season.
He didn't finish there. Running a series of screen-and-roll plays with Jameer Nelson that ended with Carter on the block, he hit a tough post-up over Anthony Parker and a driving layup. Nelson, meanwhile, took advantage of the renewed attention on Carter to hit two 3-pointers and a long 2.
The play, as it turns out, was one that Stan Van Gundy put in Saturday because it had worked for Carter in New Jersey. Carter's stellar numbers this month -- 21.4 points on 51.2 percent shooting -- after a miserable January undoubtedly gave Van Gundy some added encouragement to run more offense for Carter.
"We put him in the post a little bit and I think that got him going," Van Gundy said. "It's a pretty simple play, hardly genius stuff. We're looking for ways to get him into some of the stuff that has been more comfortable for him."
"From my old days from New Jersey," said Carter. "When he called it, I was like, 'Yah, that's what I'm talking about.'"
Carter kept attacking down the stretch, most notably in the final minute. Carter delivered the knockout blow with the Magic leading 97-93 with 30 seconds left. He came off a high pick-and-roll against Shaquille O'Neal and instead of pulling up kept penetrating to the baseline. He went under the basket, found Rashard Lewis wide open in the corner on the other side, and delivered a pass that Lewis converted into a game-ending dagger 3-pointer.
"He had his struggles in January, but he's been much more in attack mode," said Van Gundy. "I didn't really give him a chance to get into that game a whole lot until the fourth."
That play was the capper on a game that felt like the good old days of last year for Orlando. The Magic lost their first two meetings with Cleveland this season after dominating the matchup last season -- seven victories in 10 games, including a six-game win in the Eastern Conference finals.
Unfortunately for Cleveland, it was the same old story on their end, too. Much like last year's playoffs, the Cavs got a huge game from LeBron James (33 points, nine rebounds, six assists), but little or nothing from the backcourt.
Mo Williams, who dominated in a Cleveland win here in November, provided a harrowing reminder of his Eastern Conference finals performance with four points on 1-of-9 shooting, while the four Cleveland guards combined to shoot just 4-of-23. That won't get it done, and it wasted huge games from O'Neal (9-of-10, 20 points) and Jamison.
And as with last season, James eventually ran out of gas and the Cavs' attack petered out. When James mustered just one point in the final quarter until a meaningless layup with 15 seconds left, Orlando made its run.
The game itself was reminiscent of the playoffs too, both in terms of fan interest and physicality. Orlando's crowd was jacked up from the start, with the combined impact of the Cavs and now-hated former Magic center O'Neal riling up the locals.
"A [heck] of a game" said Van Gundy. "Physical, tough competitive [and] the best players were all really good."
Meanwhile, the contest on the floor was as physical as any NBA game I've seen this regular season. O'Neal and Howard -- the league's two most imposing physical specimens -- slammed bodies in the post at each end, starting with Shaq's follow-up dunk on the first possession, and hard fouls at the basket were the norm when anyone got free.
"They let us play on both sides," said O'Neal.
Orlando's J.J. Redick bore the brunt of it, taking an especially hard -- but clean -- hit from O'Neal in the third quarter that left him sprawled on the floor. "I wanted him to make a decision," said Redick, "and he decided to hammer me." He added that it was the hardest he'd ever been fouled.
We can look forward to six or seven more such contests in late May and early June between these two if the present standings hold up and the postseason holds to form. While nobody will dismiss Cleveland as a result of one bad game, or even one bad week in February, Sunday's result at least brings some doubt as to the eventual conference champion.
Meanwhile, Cleveland will try to rebuild and regroup from the first whiff of adversity to hit the team since it lost two games to open the season. Jamison started the second half after coming off the bench at the beginning, portending a likely role in the starting five for the rest of the season at the expense of J.J. Hickson; he could be an even greater factor in the next meeting between these two clubs on April 11.
"We are just going through a little transition period right now trying to figure out lineups and figuring out certain sets," said James.
The Cavs will almost certainly figure it out and play better. But after Sunday's display, the same can't be said for observers of the East. Orlando provided enough cause for optimism, and Cleveland presented enough of a case for pessimism, that we can again engage in a healthy debate as to the eventual identity of this year's Eastern Conference champ.