Eastern Conference Finals - Game 6 Recap
Orlando 103, Cleveland 90 -- Magic win series, 4-2
There won't be a Kobe-LeBron finals. The NBA's executives will have to settle for Kobe-Howard instead. Given the way the Orlando Magic disposed of the best team in the league's regular season, that might not be such a bad thing.
To be sure, an L.A.-Cleveland championship collision would have captured the imagination of many casual hoops fans, while giving the NBA a marketing and publicity extravaganza. Nevertheless, the inconvenient truth of professional basketball is that teams, not individuals, win in the postseason, and after this Game 6 rout, it's quite clear that Orlando deserves to be the 2009 Eastern Conference champion.
Go ahead--say that the Boston Celtics had too many injuries. The Magic would gently remind you that their star point guard, Jameer Nelson, has been absent from the team during this sparkling playoff run.
Go ahead--say that Stan Van Gundy's players view their coach to be panicky and volatile. Everyone in the Orlando organization would acknowledge their coach's combination of quirks and frailties, but then note that Stan The Man ran rings around coach of the year Mike Brown. Van Gundy's late-game offensive sets--particularly in Game 1 and Game 4--turned deficits into victories, and in a six-game series, two wins made the difference between a date with the Lakers and a trip to the golf course.
Go ahead--say that the Magic enjoyed huge matchup advantages in four of the five positions on the floor, excluding the one occupied by LeBron. Despite a winning history against the Cavs over the past few years (7-3 in the past three seasons, before this series began), Orlando found itself trailing by 15 points at halftime of Game 1 in Cleveland. The Magic, playing poorly, were able to turn around the ship. They loovst two games in Ohio, but even on those nights, the boys from Florida overcame 20-point deficits to make the Cavs sweat down the stretch. Cleveland had its chances to send Orlando sprawling to the canvas, but Van Gundy's guys--with the sole exception of Game 5--proved to be a vastly superior fourth quarter team.
Two weeks ago, before they finally overcame the pesky and shorthanded Celtics in Game 7 in Boston, the Magic deserved all the criticisms that came their way. They should have polished off the defending champs in five or six games. They shouldn't have crumbled in the fourth quarters of that series against a MASH unit playing without Kevin Garnett and Leon Powe. They should have handled pressure situations with the maturity of a team blessed with abundant natural talent. Instead, they had to travel to New England to win in a building that was waiting for them to begin their offseason early.
But a funny thing happened on the road to humiliation. When given one more shot against the Celtics, the frail team led by the panicky coach came together and smacked Boston into 2010 with a rousing fourth-quarter performance. In just one quarter--12 meaningful minutes of max-out basketball--an Orlando outfit went from headcase to headmaster in the Eastern Conference. The confidence and decisiveness seen in this series against Cleveland--particularly in Saturday night's Game 6 "Runaway at Amway"--was the fruit of a team's manhood moment in the East semis against Boston.
If Orlando struggled to bury Boston, the Magic had so much difficulties closing down the Cavs. When a lower-seeded team comes home for a Game 6 with a chance to eliminate its higher-seeded adversary, there are two fundamental ways of approaching such a crucial contest. One can think about the pressure and bide one's time for the final period, but the alternative is to destroy the pressure by seeking a quick kill. Orlando went for the jugular before an energized home crowd, and the approach worked beautifully for Dwight Howard and the rest of the newly-minted beasts of the East.
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Whereas Cleveland had usually performed better in the first 24 minutes of a game, the Magic flipped the script in Game 6 by racing to a 58-40 halftime bulge. Howard led the way by scoring 13 first-quarter points in an emphatic offensive display that opened up the floor for everyone else on his team. In the second quarter, Howard still chipped in 8 points, but his low-post presence allowed Orlando's perimeter players to hit four 3-pointers and then slash to the rim when the Cavs extended their defense. Howard remained the focal point of Van Gundy's A-grade game plan all night long. When this conquest of the Cavs was complete, Howard had racked up a series-high 40 points to go along with 14 rebounds and a lot of other positive contributions that couldn't be measured by the stat sheet. Orlando hit 10 of its first 22 3-pointers, a telling indicator of the quality of the looks the Magic's spot-up shooters so consistently received.
For Cleveland, a similar level of offensive efficiency never came close to emerging. The Cavs did produce a 30-point third quarter, but in the other three periods of play, LeBron and Co. didn't pack a punch at the offensive end. King James--who finished with a relatively modest 25 points--scored a total of one point in the second and fourth quarters combined. LBJ's sidekick, Mo Williams--the same man who guaranteed a series win after Game 3--hit 50 percent of his shots, but attempted only 12 of them in the first place. Cleveland might have had the best single player on the floor, but Orlando--which maxed out on defense in this climactic collision--had by far the better basketball team.
So go ahead, one more time. Go ahead and lament the lack of a Kobe-LeBron showdown for the NBA title. Once the frustration dies down, and once the old stereotypes about the Orlando Magic and Stan Van Gundy fade away (because they've been wiped away by this East finals series), you just might realize that professional basketball has an attractive championship series on its hands. The Lakers used to have a player who was simply Magic on the court. Now, the Lake Show will have to defeat the Magic if Kobe Bryant is to win a Shaq-free crown.
Based on the way Orlando has just cut through Cleveland, don't think for a minute that L.A.'s road will be easy.
By Matt Zemek
Pro-Basketball Fans staff-writer
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