The Orlando Magic came rolling into Game 1 full of confidence born of big road wins in this postseason. Those wins include series-clinchers in both rounds, and a huge Game 1 win in Boston. But the Cleveland Cavaliers had a perfect storm working at home: the best player in the league, a confident supporting cast, a lockdown defense and an energetic crowd that brings the best out of them.
The Cavs had nine days off, and most of the fourth quarters they have played thus far have been inconsequential. That, plus Orlando's mental toughness to find ways to win on the road led to a huge Game 1 win for the Magic. It was not a fluke, and if Cleveland does not respond with far better play, it will be looking at an 0-2 deficit.
So Cleveland smartly kept him on the weak side, where he then crept to the rim and scored a layup on their first possession that Howard never even saw. The Cavs did the same thing on the next possession and got two free throws. In fact, they got shots for him the first four possessions, and scored six points.
But as the game evolved, Orlando's back part of the zone (which is really what they are playing oftentimes underneath) started to be more active around Varejao, while Cleveland stopped getting ball movement. This meant it was easier for the Magic defenders to keep track of the unguarded Varejao. Quicker passes and some extra cuts will move the zone away from the paint and open things back up for Varejao's easy layups, which is a must to counter Howard's inattention to him.
Magic coach Stan Van Gundy's strategy on defense, to rarely offer much help on LeBron James and get him into thinking about being a scorer only, worked perfectly. Not because he didn't have any creation plays; because he finished with eight assists. But they liked how quiet Cleveland's offense grew as the game wore on.
One benefit of getting Cleveland to be inactive on offense is that it makes block-out opportunities easier. Cleveland had just eight offensive rebounds, which tied the Magic's number, but Cleveland needs second-chance points more than Orlando does.
• Ilgauskas grabbed Howard's jersey too often. It made the foul call too easy.
• Howard had success using quick attacks on post catches. And Orlando got him his best looks after throwing multiple passes around the perimeter, including a ball reversal. This effectively stretched Cleveland's help defense and did not allow any Cavs defenders to cheat toward a quick help move down on Howard. Cleveland cannot afford to wait to double him. He scored 30 in 20 shots, and many of them were too easy. He smartly faced up sometimes, so he could see where a double might come from, and to utilize his superior quickness in that first step. The Cavs can mix up their looks but need to double in some fashion more often.
• The Magic play that really jump-started them in the third quarter was Lewis/Rafer Alston ball screens on a naked side, leaving no one to help on the pop. They disguised it beautifully by starting on the opposite side before getting to the left side and clearing the ball-side post area (taking the helper with them). It's a major problem for the Cavs to defend, but defend it they must. That action helped revive a sleepy Lewis, who finished with 22 points and was a hero late in the game. Being alert to the action and sending someone over early, or leaving a helper there on the clear-out, is the best answer.
• Cleveland cannot have multiple defenders racing back on defense into the paint. One or two guys have to stay outside and track shooters.
• The Magic defenders made numerous mistakes in their paint defense, ignoring the bigger threats (Varejao or Ilgauskas at the rim) and staying locked on smaller guys farther away. So they gave up too many easy buckets. This was especially true early in the game, helping to give Cleveland that huge lead. The lead was a bit of "fool's gold," as it came off actions that were easily defended with the mental adjustment of being more aware defensively. Once the Magic firmed this up, Cleveland's offense became way too one-dimensional. Consider: Four of LeBron's eight assists came in the first 8:30 of the game.
• Because Howard wanted to stay near the rim, Cleveland was able to get whatever pick-and-pop shot it wanted. Most teams send the opposite big to contest that shot, but Orlando asked the post player defending the screener to first hedge the ball handler and then race to contest the wing shot. If Ilgauskas or Joe Smith start knocking this shot down, the Magic need to respond with an adjustment.
• When Varejao makes basket cuts, and Howard is focused on the ball, the Magic guards (and Lewis inside) need to get a hand into the passing lane.
• Howard needs to avoid the baseline move/counter-spin back to the middle. The Cavs send late help on him, and he's blind to it.
• To better deal with Lewis, Cleveland might play LeBron more at power forward. Orlando needs to prepare for this possibility in terms of its defensive plan.
• Orlando can simply never let LeBron build up speed driving with his right hand down the middle. It's almost always a bucket, and often a foul.
• Lewis was able to shot-fake attack with ease, but too often (in the first half) kicked it out. Driving and working for the tough finish will help draw fouls and give Howard a chance for a tip-in.
• Cleveland took 10 more shots in Game 1, thanks to eight fewer turnovers. Every Magic player needs to do a better job of calculating risk/reward before acting, and that starts with practice and film study. Avoiding high-turnover actions are important, because they are not likely to force many with the style of defense they are playing.
• Williams has not been shooting well, and has struggled with Orlando all season. But Cleveland could decide to run more actions specifically for him, and get him going. It might be what Orlando hopes for, getting the ball out of LeBron's hands, but it still serves a bigger purpose and creates a better second option for later in games.
• Orlando's bench smacked Cleveland's around. If that continues, Orlando's chances of grabbing a second straight road win get much better.
• Orlando is 9-5 in the postseason, with three buzzer-beaters causing five of those defeats. Another loss came in the now-infamous Game 5 in Boston, in which it squandered a huge lead late. They are so close to being 9-1, the same as Cleveland now, despite far tougher competition. This team is growing ever more confident.
• Mickael Pietrus had another terrific game for Orlando. Can he maintain the high level he's played at in the postseason?
In February, I wrote that Orlando was the league's best team. They are not as good now, but proving to be a very dangerous team that is getting better in the postseason. Cleveland is faced with its biggest game by far this postseason, and playing its best is not a guarantee for a win. Consider: LeBron scored 49 points, the Cavs had eight fewer turnovers, shot 48.9 percent from the field, and they lost.
The Magic are still good enough to win a title, and Cleveland knows that now. But Orlando has put together three straight excellent games, and is not as likely to do the same again. Cleveland should clean up some of the areas of concern from Game 1 and take Game 2, but another great game is very likely. The Magic are for real.
Prediction: Cavs win Game 2
David Thorpe is an NBA analyst for Scouts Inc. and the executive director of the Pro Training Center in Clearwater, Fla., where he oversees the player development program for more than 40 NBA, European and D-League players. Those players include Kevin Martin, Rob Kurz, Luol Deng, Courtney Lee and Tyrus Thomas. To e-mail him, click here.
Synergy Sports Technology systems were used in the preparation of this report.