In back-to-back games on back-to-back nights, LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers bested their opponents by a total of 16 points. Considering the Miami Heat and Orlando Magic had a combined record of 12-3 entering the contests, and both games were in the state of Florida, it's quite an accomplishment.
So what gives? How did Orlando and Miami, ranked third and fifth respectively in this week's power rankings (well above the Cavs at No. 9), get handled by a 4-3 team coming off a four day break?
Simply put, the Cavs are built to win, which is why I had them as my top Eastern Conference team entering the season.
Over the first two weeks of the season NBA fans were obsessed with the Cavs' terrible start, as the team tried to integrate a Hall of Fame center and new role players into the mix. Fans were also riding high on the heat wave coming from the central-south Florida area.
Now that the teams are hitting their stride, it is becoming apparent that the Cavs are better than they looked, but more importantly, Miami and Orlando are not as impressive as some might have thought.
In the Magic's three losses Dwight Howard has averaged 27 minutes and five fouls per game. Right now Orlando has an impressive offense; they have one of the world's rarest athletes in the middle and a plethora of talented shooters on the wing, but when their centerpiece hits the bench (and the supremely overrated Marcin Gortat enters the game), those perimeter shots get a lot harder.
It sounds obvious, but the key to beating the Magic is to get Howard into foul trouble early, which is exactly what Shaq did on Wednesday night.
Howard is a hyperactive defender, he is consumed with making plays— and his ability to make them keeps hopeful scorers as far away from his outstretched arms as possible.
In order to get Howard out of the game you have to take the ball right at him; he may win some of these battles but the fouls will rack up quicker than the blocked shots, and he will either have to play a condensed form of defense or he will be on the pine.
Right now many are scrolling down to the comments section to tell me about how deep this team is and how it doesn't need Dwight to win. It's not true.
I do agree that Orlando has the most talented roster in the NBA. The Magic have great size and eight guys with the green light to gun. Stan Van Gundy’s offense is built to either get a dunk from Howard or hoist a three, but are the Magic too deep?
With all of the shooters on the roster, and considering they've been at least two players short every game, will all of these snipers get itchy trigger fingers in an attempt to show the coaches they are the ones who deserve to be on the floor?
When Howard comes out of the game and the defense extends, it causes trouble for the Magic. Moreover, without Howard this team, which is used to cementing its feet outside the three point line, lacks offensive creativity— despite their name. The players take their turns trying to single-handedly bring the team back and the lack of ball movement leads to a disappointing finish.
Not So Hot
Having watched a majority of the Heat's games this year one thing is for certain: Dwyane Wade is really good. We already knew that, though, from his 30.2 points, 7.5 assists, and 5.0 rebounds per game from a year ago to go along with ridiculous defensive numbers.
Setting up a game plan to stop Wade is a lost cause; he's quicker than a big defender and bigger than a quick defender— just write him off for 30-5-5 and move on to the other four players on the court.
After their starting one-plus-four, the Heat are the least deep team looking to make the playoffs (not to say their starting five is perfect). I still got love for Udonis Haslem, but the next four of Daequan Cook, Carlos Arroyo, Joel Anthony, and Dorell Wright will not be feared by anyone in the league.
The Heat win games through defensive intensity, so they can get along without a legitimate scorer on the second line most of the time, but against the more talented teams in the NBA the starting five has to play extended minutes to compete. This wears them down throughout the game and it may break them down over the season.
On Thursday night Quentin Richardson took a blow to the chest from Shaq, causing him to miss extended time, and it put the Heat in a tough position because he is their only practical matchup for LeBron James.
It is no secret that Miami is looking for a star to pair with Wade in 2010, but it needs to add several players if it wants to make this team a title contender.