Sorry, Cleveland, but This One Is Over
Don't tell me you saw this coming.
Yet again, the Cleveland Cavaliers—the same Cavaliers who steamrolled through their first 90 games of the season at a 74-16 pace—came up short in their bid to, get this, reach the NBA Finals.
Not win them...Reach them.
Six weeks ago, the Cavs making the NBA Finals was as much a lock as Susan Boyle making the finals of Britain's Got Talent.
The Cavs held the No. 1 Seed in the East and finished the regular season with the best record in the NBA (66-16). They were an astounding 40-2 at home, with the second of the two losses coming on the last day of the season with one LeBron James sitting on the bench and watching for the duration of the game.
He, along with many of the other regulars, were resting up for what was supposed to be their version of "Spring Training."
The No. 2 seed in the East, the Boston Celtics, had shown signs of mortality down the stretch, especially after the loss of Kevin Garnett to what has been diagnosed as "aging knees." The third-seeded Orlando Magic was, as coach Stan VanGundy put it, "playing awful basketball."
Well, the durability of the aging Celtics did catch up to them as two grueling series were too much for Ray Allen and Paul Pierce to handle.
Meanwhile, the Cavs won each of their first eight playoff games by double digits.
What has transpired since has been, to be generous, unbelievable.
Generous for the Cavs, that is.
The fact of the matter is, outside of that Magic locker room, no one thought Orlando would be up 3-1 after the first four games of the series.
LeBron James is now averaging 36 points per game in the playoffs. He has gone for 40+ points three times in the series.
He drilled a fadeaway three at the buzzer to give Cleveland an improbable win in Game Two.
Think about that, an improbable win...for the Cavs?
In the words of Bjork, "This wasn't supposed to happen."
So, what has gone wrong for the Cavs?
Well, first off, we must give Orlando some credit.
Despite the fact that they played poorly down the stretch in the regular season, they are a deep team with a great starting five and, more importantly, a great head coach.
So, for all that, we can deal with them winning one game in the series.
But three? In four games?
After watching Game Four, here are what I believe to be the five biggest reasons that this series is OVER for Cleveland:
5. Rashard Lewis
I could have easily just written "Whoever is Supposed to guard Rashard Lewis."
Once again, Mike Brown...what exactly are you thinking?
Rashard is a $120 million dollar man. Wally Sczerbiak is, well, Wally...Szczerbiak. He cannot guard him. I mean, I don't know if you noticed it after Lewis drilled his 345th shot right in Wally's face, but you need to fix that matchup pronto.
Besides that, though, Rashard was just clutch.
He only had 17 points, but each of the shots he made seemed to come in big spots (13 came after the third quarter). His turnaround three from the corner with 4.1 seconds left in the fourth quarter was as big and tough a shot as anyone can hit.
He hit big free throws in overtime and played great defense as well. Tonight, Lewis was definitely worth the money.
4. Rafer Alston
One thing that you cannot teach in any sport is size.
But Orlando brings a lot of it to their frontcourt in the form of Rashard Lewis, (6'10") Hedo Turkoglu, (6'10") and Dwight Howard (6'11").
When there is that much size from the small and power forwards and the center, you need to counteract that with some size of your own.
So, why has Mike Brown been putting LeBron "I am an absolute beast at small forward" James on 6'2" Rafer "I play point guard" Alston?
I, unfortunately, do not have the answer to that.
Now, King James has not been on him at all times, but he has been on him enough to allow Orlando to put Alston on the perimeter, bring James out of the interior, and inevitably feed the ball to one of their big three who are being guarded by undersized and over-matched players on Cleveland.
It just doesn't make any sense to me.
When LeBron is in the middle, he slows down Orlando's offense so much.
Yes, they are a great three-point shooting team, but even a great three-point team only shoots about 40 percent from the field. Dwight, meanwhile, will dunk and maul your man-to-man defense at a much higher rate.
Make them beat you with the three ball and stop giving up the paint. Period.
Alston had a huge Game Four, but it was so big because it's Rafer Alston...not Reggie Miller. Mo Williams needs to step up his defense and guard Alston so the Cavs do not have to sacrifice their best player.
And seven inches.
3. The Mediocrity of the Cleveland Bench
People will always argue about the depth of a team's bench and how it comes into play. Yes, there is no denying the value of fresh legs, especially this deep into an NBA season. Having upwards of nine players who can give you 30+ quality minutes a game is invaluable.
The Cavs have four or five guys on the bench who could give them these minutes on occasion—Szczerbiak, Daniel Gibson, Ben Wallace, Joe Smith, and (possibly) Sasha Pavlovic. But not one of these guys is as reliable as the Magic's sixth man, Mickael Pietrus.
Tha Cavs have a standout small forward (James) and point guard (Mo Williams). The Magic have standouts at 3-5 (Lewis, Turkoglu, and Howard) as well as at the sixth man spot (Pietrus).
If one of the two—or both—aforementioned Cavaliers has a bad game, they have no shot of winning.
What they need is a more reliable third option like Wally, Delonte West, or anyone else that they currently have.
I mean, you can only play five players at a time. If we were running nine deep, the Cavs may have this one in the bag.
But we're not, and if the Cavs lose this series it will be a hot topic in Cleveland.
2. LeBron James
As the biggest "LeBron Guy" on the planet, I must say that I was not impressed by The Chosen One tonight. His box score line, 44-12-7-1-1, is like free Cinemax to college fratboys.
But watching him play, you could see why he scored 44 points. Besides getting to the line 18 times, he also took 29 shots including 10 from beyond the arc.
Unfortunately for LeBron, his performance tonight will be remembered for his eight turnovers—seven after the third quarter—coming in big moments during the game.
He threw the ball into the backcourt, out of bounds, and into defender's hands. He was sloppy with his dribble and, even when he didn't turn the ball over, he made bad decisions with it.
And as crazy as this sounds, despite taking 29 shots, LeBron has seemed to be playing much more conservatively lately. Conservative in the way that he is not taking the big shots you would expect him to take. Beyond that, he is also passing up on the easy ones.
Case in point: If you watched Game Four last night, how many times did you watch LeBron dribble his way to within ten feet of the basket, with one man on him, and pass up the shot?
LeBron, how much closer do you want to get to the hoop?
When he did start going to the dish in overtime, he racked up some quick points and drew fouls, getting to the line and making 14 of 18 free throws (77 percent).
It may be too late now, but LeBron has to learn from his mistakes in the future, wherever in the NBA that may be.
1. Stan VanGundy
Honestly, I do not think I can say enough about this guy.
He has the Magic playing their best basketball of the season at just the right time. Besides being one of the greatest motivators in all of sports, VanGundy is a humble man who is not afraid to speak his mind, a rare blend of modesty and frankness in professional coaches.
What he has done in this series is simple.
If the Orlando Magic are going to lose this series, they are going to make everyone on that team beat them. There have been no constant double teams on LeBron like everyone may have expected.
Rather, the Magic defenders are giving James a few feet of room, preventing him from blowing completely past them, giving Dwight time to get over and provide some help defense, and, most importantly, daring LeBron to beat them with his jump shot.
James is a prolific scorer, but he is no Kobe Bryant.
His shot is not on 24's level just yet. Rather, he makes a living driving to the hoop, physically dominating other players and getting to the rack.
However, the size of the Magic—particularly Dwight—makes this much harder for King James than against other teams. All this has added up to LeBron taking 27 three-point shots in four games.
That is not his style of play, but the Orlando defense has forced him to take a lot of bad shots in this series.
In addition, VanGundy is the architect to an offense with a style that he knows can compete with the one team which he knew would be the biggest obstacle in their quest to reach the NBA Finals.
The screen-and-roll has given the Cavaliers headaches, especially since LeBron has been on the perimeter for most of the series
(EDIT: Can Mike Brown win Coach of the Year, then get fired in the offseason? Just a thought...)
When the team needs to shoot three, they shoot three.
When they need to go down low, they go down low.
They may have the image of a run-and-gun team, but the fact is they have been far more physical than Cleveland has so far. Whoever they play in the NBA Finals—that's right, this one is OVER people—will find out just who Orlando is.
And Stan the Man will still be dishing out compliments about the opposition.
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