Eastern Conference Finals - Game 3 Recap
Orlando 99, Cleveland 89 - Magic lead series, 2-1
The Cleveland Cavaliers had the right strategy, but the Orlando Magic put the ball in the basket. In a game that affirmed the supremacy of shooting, Stan Van Gundy's group gave itself a chance to take control of the Eastern Conference finals.
Whereas Denver couldn't take a lead heading into the midway point of its best-of-seven battle against the Lakers, Orlando's assemblage of athletes did the deed on Sunday evening at Amway Arena. Timely shooting--plus some unexpected fourth-quarter developments--enabled the No. 3 seed in the East to maintain home-court advantage and make the Cavs sweat out a pressure-packed Game 4 on Tuesday.
It's hard to argue with the way Cleveland and coach Mike Brown attacked the Magic at both ends of the floor. More so than in the first two games of this series, LeBron James--who tossed in another 41 points (yawn)--drove hard to the rim. Given LBJ's tremendous combination of size, strength and agility, the decision to go right at Dwight Howard proved effective. Not only did Howard get 4 fouls in less than three quarters; LeBron earned 24 free throws and hit 18 of them (more on LeBron's foul shooting in just a bit). When Orlando did collapse in the paint to deny King James a layup, the league MVP kicked the ball to his shooters, Mo Williams, Delonte West, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas. LeBron settled for jumpers a bit too much in the first half, but after halftime, the Cavs' superstar relentlessly roared to the bucket and dared the Magic to stop him. As a result, Cleveland got solid looks on demand.
There was just one problem: The Cavs couldn't knock down those shots when they emerged.
West was a respectable 5-for-11 from the field, but Williams--who is shooting just under 33 percent for the entire series--posted another dreary night at the office, going 5-for-16. Ilgauskas, who will almost always be open in pick-and-pop situations, could only hit three shots in 10 attempts. The top seed in the East had a good game plan, but if shots don't fall, victories prove to be elusive.
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On the other side of the coin, the Magic--this time, from the foul line--upped their game as the series shifted from Ohio to central Florida. Orlando usually relies on the long ball to win games, but on a night when Cleveland's frequent hedge moves and quick doubleteams at the top of the key ran the Magic's shooters off the 3-point line (another solid piece of coaching by Brown), the home team was able to win by pounding the ball into Dwight Howard and--can you believe it?!--getting reliable free-throw shooting from the same man who's been living in the high 50s at the charity stripe this season. Indeed, the most amazing--and significant--statistical comparison of this contest could be found in the fourth quarter free throw shooting of Howard and LeBron. Howard went an eye-popping 8-of-10 at the line, while James went 7-of-12, missing a pair of foul shots on two separate trips. Given that Orlando's lead hovered around 5-7 points for much of the fourth quarter, it's fair to say that if Howard had made only six free throws instead of eight (in conjunction with his typical free throw percentage), and LeBron had made 10 foul shots instead of seven, the final minutes would have been more dramatic. Orlando might have managed to win anyway, but not with the same comfort zone. Putting Dwight Howard on the foul line has been a solid strategy for playoff opponents over the past five weeks, but if the big man can continue to shoot free throws with distinction (Howard finished the game 14-for-19 at the line, just over 70 percent), an already tough matchup for the Cavs will become that much more difficult.
The drama and tension of this series have enabled Cavs-Magic to grab the attention of casual basketball fans; in that sense, the 2009 East finals have proven to be an endlessly intriguing and mesmerizing passion play. From a basketball-only standpoint, however, there's really not much mystery involved in this showdown. As Game 4 awaits, the battle lines have been clearly drawn: Can Cleveland's non-LeBron shooters put the ball through the net? If they do, the Cavs should fly back to Ohio early Wednesday morning with a 2-2 series; if not, Stan Van Gundy will have his team within one win of a sizeable upset and an unexpected trip to the NBA Finals.
By Matt Zemek
Pro-Basketball Fans staff-writer
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