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Eastern Conference Finals - Game 4 Recap

Orlando 116, Cleveland 114 (OT) - Magic lead series, 3-1
 
LeBron James can't be counted on to hit miracle buzzer-beaters on a regular basis.
 
For the second time in the Eastern Conference finals, the league MVP had the rock in his hands at the end of regulation in a one-possession battle, but unlike Game 2, the ball didn't drop for the best player in professional basketball. As a result, the crew from Cleveland must now win three straight games in order to advance to the NBA Finals.
 
Orlando--a franchise often referred to as the "Tragic" because of its many postseason failures in the eras of both Penny Hardaway and Tracy McGrady--is painting smiles on faces in the city Walt Disney World made famous. The Magic's crazy carpet ride through the 2009 NBA Playoffs will lead all the way to an Eastern Conference crown if Stan Van Gundy's team can conquer the Cavs just one more time.
 
Why is Cleveland--owner of the NBA's best regular-season record and winner of its first eight playoff games--suddenly on the verge of being denied a date with the best in the West? In many ways, the answers are still the same as they've been after the Cavs' previous losses to Orlando, but in Game 4 of this best-of-seven series, there was a slight twist involved.
 
Before identifying this collision's most consequential sequence, a word about the Cavs is in order. Mike Brown is still not getting anything from the "Guarantee Guy," Mo Williams, who flatly stated before this tussle that Cleveland would win the series. Williams, the same man who made the All-Star team and shot so confidently through the second round of the playoffs, was the worst Cavalier starter on Tuesday at Amway Arena. LeBron might have scored 44 more points on the night, but his no-longer-trusty sidekick threw up yet another 5-of-15 on the stat sheet (as he did earlier in the series), staying locked at 33 percent shooting from the field. Williams’ backcourt mate Delonte West--who shot a respectable 7-of-15--fought hard on defense against the much taller Hedo Turkoglu and, at the offensive end, scored a significant bucket late in regulation to tie the score at 97-all. Plainly put, West did his job, as did active big men Anderson Varejao (9 points and 5 steals) and Zydrunas Ilgauskas (12 points and 9 boards). For once, Cleveland didn't look like a one-man team against Orlando; however, with Williams unable to deliver the goods in support of his bold words after Game 3, the Cavs still lacked the contributions they really need in this series. Williams not only shot poorly on yet another occasion; he watched as Magic guard Rafer Alston smoked the Cavs for 20 second-half points, 10 of them coming in the first four minutes of the third period to promptly erase Cleveland's 58-50 halftime lead.
 
Okay, so Mo Williams came up very small in a big game. That's nothing new. The fresh plot complication presented in Game 4 emerged from an Orlando team that hit 16 3-pointers in regulation time, but needed two very big plays to stay alive.
 
Cleveland, down 96-90 with 4:18 left, outscored the Magic 8-1 in a three-minute stretch, as Varejao, West and LeBron delivered crunch-time scores, all while Orlando--in a reversal from earlier games in the series--couldn't buy a bucket down the stretch. Heading into the final half-minute of play, the Cavs held a 98-97 lead... and had the ball in LeBron's hands. In Games 1 and 2 in Cleveland, it was Orlando who poured in last-minute baskets to stun Mike Brown's men, but Game 4 was turning that narrative upside-down. The Magic thrive when their shooters are in rhythm, but when shots don't drop and the offensive end becomes an unpleasant place, Team Van Gundy can get down on itself. Once more in these playoffs, a club that has vacillated so often between dominant and deflated had to find a deeper reservoir of will in a contest it couldn't afford to lose.

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At the very moment when their series edge--and home-court advantage--seemed to be slipping away, the Magic found an extra ounce of determination, and that made all the difference.
 
In that fateful possession with the Cavs up by one and just 35 seconds left, Orlando's sensational sixth man Mickael Pietrus--who once again shone with 17 points for Orlando--prevented LeBron from getting to the rim. King James could only manage an errant midrange jumper that was rebounded by Turkoglu to set up a winning attempt by the Magic. Pietrus missed a 3-pointer from the right corner, and when the ball bounced long and left inside the 10-second mark, it appeared that the Cavs were going to snare the rebound, earn a pair of free throws, and stand a very good chance of walking out of Florida with an even-steven series.
 
Dwight Howard had other ideas.
 
The star center hounded West in a pursuit for the loose ball, and after the leather sphere grazed West's fingertips and bounced out of bounds, Orlando--through grit and hustle--had earned another look at the basket with 6.4 seconds remaining. Rashard Lewis--who scored eight of the Magic's final nine points in regulation--came off a perfect Howard screen to drill an ice-veins 3-pointer with 4.1 seconds left for a 100-98 lead, but without Pietrus's defense and Howard's sweat equity, Lewis wouldn't have had a chance to be a hero. LeBron made two free throws with five tenths of a second left to tie the score at 100, but in light of the fact that they were trailing--and without possession of the ball--in the final 35 seconds of regulation, the Magic had to be somewhat content that they had lived to play another five minutes.
 
Once in overtime, Howard--who finished with 27 points and 14 rebounds--simply dominated. While LeBron committed three of his eight turnovers in the supplementary stanza, assistant coach Patrick Ewing's pupil threw down 10 points, two from the foul line and eight on an assortment of dunks, layups and tip-ins. Howard carried Orlando to the enviable 3-1 series lead, but without clutch plays at the end of regulation from a number of sources--not to mention Alston's phenomenal second-half shooting barrage--the Cavs would have gained a split in the Sunshine State.
 
The narrative isn't quite as clear in this series as it appeared to be after Game 3, but the bottom line reality still holds. Yes, Cleveland received more blended and balanced contributions in Game 4 of the East finals; however, Orlando is still the better team on the floor, the group whose collective resources are eclipsing a lonely LeBron and his still-inadequate teammates. With one more well-rounded performance over the next few days, the Magic will shatter the NBA's perceived hierarchy and successfully complete a palace coup against King James.


 

By Matt Zemek
Pro-Basketball Fans staff-writer


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