It may have taken a while (thanks, Boss, for keeping me at work for 12 hours), but I've prepared a rebuttal to Brandon Ribak's article saying the the Orlando Magic will go to the NBA Finals...and not the Cleveland Cavaliers, the most dominant team in the playoffs.
Before I launch into my explanation why I'm picking Cleveland, let me just say that I respect the Magic enough to give them a considerable chance to go to the Finals. They are going to roll into Cleveland riding a mountainous swell of momentum, for they didn't just beat the Celtics.
They beat the Celtics after trailing five games into their seven-game series, something that has never happened. They beat the Celtics, on the road, in convincing fashion, without needing Dwight Howard to score 20 points.
In a few words, the Magic have officially entered contender status. Whether they'll get a shot at that shiny gold trophy depends on them defeating arguably the best team in the league, and defeating them four times.
Here's five reasons why they won't get that chance.
1. The Home Court
Any scrub with an iota of NBA wisdom knows how utterly dominating the Cavaliers have been at home. There are more daunting places to play, like Staples Center (at least when the Lakers play...) or the (former) Boston Garden. There are louder arenas in the league, like Utah's Energy Solutions Arena or Portland's Rose Garden.
But the Quicken Loans Arena, the Cavs' home floor, has been pure gold for them. If it weren't for Mike Brown resting all his important players in the last game of the regular season, they likely would have gone 40-1. Still, thirty-nine wins at home is stupefying.
And not the Magic, either.
People will tell you that Orlando went 2-1 against Cleveland in the regular season. I'd tell you that the two losses were on Orlando's floor, and the famous 40-point whipping happened in a game of little consequence.
Orlando will have to steal a game on the road to win the series. If they don't do it in Game One, when the Cavaliers will be most vulnerable, they likely won't be able to.
2. Fresh Legs
While the Magic have youth on their side, they can't be feeling too chipper after a physical, full series against Boston, who fought, scratched, and clawed to no avail. They'll be feeling some fatigue. They'll be drawing on their second and third winds sooner and sooner as the long postseason wears on.
Cleveland, meanwhile, has been resting more than playing. They haven't had to go through the rigors of physical and mental wear and tear. They've had a nice long break from the playoff "grind" (in quotations for them), and are fresh, eager and ready to go.
I do realize that there have been some examples of teams (in all sports) coming off long layoffs and plunging straight into big games...and losing badly. There is a danger here, especially with Orlando coming off the lunatic high of beating down the Celtics the way they did.
However, I'm of the opinion that LeBron James is not one who will allow his team to tank like that. He's been keeping them loose and easy, and the practices they'll have will knock some of the rust off and loosen up the joints. If James can keep the Cavs from the sort of letdown that they've been perfectly set up for, they'll be able to keep the home-court advantage, and eliminate Orlando.
3. LeBron James Will Shut Down Hedo Turkoglu
Turkoglu, the Magic's starting small forward, has really grown the last several years. He's evolved from being a pure spot-up shooter in Sacramento to being the kind of all-around offensive threat every team needs in order to get to where Orlando is.
He can drive around the slower players, shoot over the smaller players, and use his underrated passing skills to get the ball out of a double-team and to the open man, one reason why Orlando is such a great 3-point shooting team.
The key perimeter threat for the Magic is Turkoglu. The guy who will be tasked with stopping him is James.
We all know that LeBron James has been using his freakish athletic traits to score in a variety ways on offense; it's no secret that he's arguably the toughest cover in the NBA. What hasn't been publicized as much is that he's been brushing up on his defense.
What we see are his spectacular blocks defending the fast-break, but James has shown the ability to defend the perimeter, to shadow the opposing forward and make his offense more and more difficult to come by--and for some players, how they perform on offense affects the way they play defense.
If James can keep Turkoglu from getting around him (for such a lanky and awkward-looking guy, he is very quick off the dribble), put himself in a couple passing lanes, and contest every single one of Turkoglu's jumpers, he'll have done all he can against a great offensive player—and it may prove to be the difference if he can bother him enough.
4. They've Been There, Seen That
Stop me if you've heard this cliche before: There's no substitute for experience. It's been proved so many times before in so many different sports, it's practically become an accepted fact amongst We the Sports Fans.
Now, with this fresh in your minds, consider what I have to say next. Many of the most important figures on the Orlando Magic have never made it this far in the playoffs before.
Dwight Howard hadn't made it beyond the first round until this year. Rashard Lewis had been beyond the opening round once, and that was with the lame-duck Sonics several years ago. Mickael Pietrus, Courtney Lee and Rafer Alston are all as new to the later rounds as Howard.
Even Hedo Turkoglu can be considered something of a neophyte. Sure, he's been to the conference finals before with Sacramento, but that was as a role player. This time, with the Magic, he will have to provide All-Star-caliber performances again and again if the Magic want to advance.
On the flip side, Cleveland retains many of the players it had when it went to the NBA Finals two years ago. Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Anderson Varejao, Daniel Gibson and Wally Szczerbiak were all on that team, if my memory serves me right.
Another reserve, Ben Wallace, has been to this level many a time, and was on a team that won it all. And they do have a certain dude that wears No. 23....
The Cavaliers have been battle-tested and baptized. They know what it's like to break through all the barriers holding them back. They know what it takes to summon that final effort and emerge from the conference finals to graze on the sweet pastures of the NBA Finals.
Orlando still has to figure that out—and it will be Cleveland that shows them first-hand how to be a championship-level team.
5. They Have People To Throw At Dwight Howard
One of the first-ever articles I wrote for this website was a gushfest on Dwight Howard. The man is a beast, a rebound-hogging, shot-swatting, super-athletic savage fully worthy of the nickname Superman.
There is no real way to stop him, short of illegal measures like hacking him or camping in the key hoping to keep him off the offensive glass.
That said, Howard is mortal, if barely. He can tire, even though he's in impeccable shape, and a team with the right number of bodies to throw at him can take advantage of the time when he does start to flag a bit.
The reasons neither Philadelphia nor Boston took advantage of this are because of circumstances outside their immediate control. Every single one of us knew Philly was too undersized up front to hope to contain Howard, and he promptly ate Samuel Dalembert alive.
We also know that without Kevin Garnett and Leon Powe, the Celtics had to rely on the likes of Glen Davis and Mikki Moore to spell the already disadvantaged Kendrick Perkins...and we all know how that turned out.
What gives the Cavaliers hope is that they have Ilgauskas, Varejao, and Wallace—three decent-to-good interior defenders—to rotate the job of Dwight-watching.
Why they have hope is because while Howard may grow tired and fatigued, his defender will not. There will always be someone fresh on Dwight Howard, which is something he hasn't seen in these playoffs.
Limiting Howard's rebounds and points to merely good/great numbers has to be key in the minds of Cleveland's coaching staff. They do have the bodies available to do this. They just have to use them efficiently enough to blunt Howard's impact on the game and make the Magic shoot threes to win.
When a team has to live by the three-ball in the playoffs, it often dies by it. That's what Mike Brown has to be counting on going into this series.
I'll even throw out a prediction. How about...Cleveland in seven. To think that this will be a short series is to be insane, but I don't doubt the ability of LeBron James to close the deal and hoss his team back to the NBA Finals, where they will be favored no matter who comes out of the West.