Tonight in Orlando, Dwight Howard was the best player on the floor, despite being on it for barely half of the available minutes. He led his team to a two-to-one series lead in a sluggish, foul-filled game that was compelling more for the stakes than the play, though there were still a half-dozen jaw-dropping moments, not the least of which is that LeBron James scored 41 on a night where his jump shot was less productive than mine. And now, the micro-blog...
In the first, the Magic came out with the usual home court bump and a sudden surge of usefulness from Rafer Alston, but didn't score enough, despite Cleveland turnovers, to take a big lead. In the second, the Cavs bench started with an eight point surge to get it to one, but an offense of Joe Smith and Delonte West can only take you so far, and the Magic got useful minutes out of Martin Gortat and Mikael Pietrus. At the 7:30 mark, LeBron James was able to get Dwight Howard's third, and Magic Fan shows his Outer Redneck with a LeBron Sucks serenade; the makes cut the lead to 29-25, and allow Mike Brown to try to get Z Ilgauskas some comfortable minutes. Mo Williams hit a three to cut the lead back to a point, and a James make gave them their first lead with 5:44 left.
Orlando Fan sounds like he is not alone in the Amway Arena, which given their curious ticket distribution pattern (if you want to buy two tickets, you have to buy ten and find buyers for the other eight -- thank you, Dirty Davey, for that) is not too surprising...
Anthony Johnson assaults Mo Williams with an elbow, and almost gets tossed with Flagrant Two, but since Williams is able to return despite looking like he's been in a street fight. Ball karma demands Johnson miss his free throws and WIlliams makes his, and that's exactly what happens; the Cavs then led by three. James went serpentine through the Magic to push the lead to five, and the Cavs have that Pissed Off Road Team feel to them right now.
The Magic went cold in the second, and part of this is simply that the Cavs stopped turning it over. The game got chippy/slow with free throws. James let Pietrus go by for a layup, then took the inbounds and immediately counterattacked to get a Rashard Lewis foul, and that's an even or better trade. Sideshow Vareajo wants to guard Lewis, but want and can are two different things. James falls and still controls the ball; the possession ended with another Z miss, but still, holy crap. A Lewis slam cut the lead to one and provoked a Mike Brown timeout. Despite the game not being much on the eyes, it's still tight and clearly leading to something good... and if I were a Cav fan, I'd be a little bent at not being able to get more of a lead with Howard on the bench.
Craig Sager reported that Williams received four stitches from Johnson, and I wouldn't be surprised if it winds up helping him. Z couldn't finish at the rim because that's what happens when you are a finesse 7-footer. James continued to hit from the free throw line as TNT fitted Hedo Turkoglu for goat horns. James had 18 as Boobie Gibson actually gets on the floor; the man who owned Chauncey Billups in 2007 as a rook now isn't even in the rotation.
Funny game, basketball. Gortat blocked James twice in the first half, both times kind of amazing. Gibson missed a three with no one within ten feet of him. James goaltends Gortat to give the Magic another lead, and LeBron airballs the three from the corner, then Gortat got to the line with 2.8 left in the quarter, an end game that clearly went to the home team, at least until the big man missed both free throws. Williams misses the three-quarter court heave, and the half ended with the Magic up by a point, 42-41. But of a grind of a game, with only two Cavs (James and Williams) able to do much; neither team can feel too good about their standing right now.
The third started with more Cleveland weaver work, but it did not end with a make. Howard with his fresh legs burned Z for a super-easy make and old-school three. Vareajo knocked down two on an Alston foul, ans the Cavs have outperformed the Magic at the line. Lee made a corkscrew jumper to push it back to four. James took a head shot from the Turk to bail him out, and Magic Fan is outraged by an obvious call; not exactly covering themselves in basketball IQ there. After a team board on the second make, Orlando Fan really sang hard, just in time to see James make another and give the Cavs a lead. By my count, the madder the Magic's fans get, the better the Cavs played.
Howard collected another down low and made both free throws to change the lead again. James can't buy a jumper tonight, and Howard's half hook converts. James missed his 11th jumper of the night, a three pointer that hit every part of the rim and stayed out, and Lee drops the corner three for an instant eight-and-zero run, seven point lead, and Cleveland timeout. I realize that every NBA conference final has to go to the wire this year, but with James not hitting anything from outside, I'm wondering exactly how.
Lee steals and slams as Magic Fan sensed blood in the water. A Z miss is followed by Howard getting subdued under the rim, but it wasn't a shooting foul, and James then got to the rim after a miss, picked up Lee's third, and made both to stop the bleeding and cut it to six. Alston fed Howard for a slam, and the big man now had 15 points in 14 minutes.
A Williams three answers to five, and Howard got an ofensive board, then punctuates it with an elbow that could have gotten him tossed, had it found a body. The Cavs reacted to it as it were a smoking gun in the parlor, which tells you just how much they are dreaming of Howard not being on the floor. Vareajo sits after a bad foul, and Alston pushed it to seven. Mike Brown puts in Ben Wallace, who is just an embarrassment at this point on offense.
James could not make another jumper, but the o-board led to an alley-oop slam that sucked the air out of the building, and while the Cavs really weren't the best team on the floor so far, they were still freaking dangerous. The Turk got to the line from a Smith foul and made both. Williams missed from the corner, and while James still hasn't made a jump shot tonight, the Magic are still collapsing on him, giving up open looks to the supporting cast.
Wallace is called for a foul on Howard, who cans one, and I guess Wallace still has a use for that. A West make brings it back to six, but Wallace's third is a block on Alston, and ye gads, Ben Wallace Is Terrible. Two Alston makes, and it was 8 again until West answered.
Smith picked Pietrus, then missed; a Wallace o-board led to another West miss, and as we go to commerce, Howard picked up his fourth on a push. Big moment there, as the crowd goes quiet all of a sudden, and compounded the error with a tech, his fifth of the playoffs, but Williams missed it. Howard is just two techs away from sitting, which could be a very big deal later. Worth watching.
West missed and Gortat with the board, but Smith erased Alston, and James feeds Wallace for a slam to cut it to four. James ripped Lewis, but Smith missed the open jumper. Cavs looked much more together with Howard on the bench and Alston missing forced jumpers, but good Magic defense led to Pietrus getting a turnover layup and old-school three; just an immense play in the flow of the game there, and the lead was seven again. Williams tried to do too much and blew the two-for-one possession, as the Cavs did bad things on the end of quarter again. Pietrus traveled baldly for the second time tonight, and the quarter ended with James scoring on a typically brilliant drive. At the end of three, it was Magic 68, Cavs 63.
Z tries to exploit Gortat, but it went the other way, and the teams combine to go one for their first 11 in the quarter. Yeesh. West got a call and a make to cut it to six, and with 9:28 left, Stan van Ron Jeremy Gundy gets antsy enough to put Howard back in. The fact that the Cavs are in a game at all while shooting 36 percent from the floor on the road is kind of amazing. Pietrus made two off a penetration drive, and it was eight again. A Z jumper actually goes down to cut it to six. Lewis drained a three off good ball movement, and that could be a dagger, especially after Mo Williams is whistled for a moving pick. With 8:19 left and commerce happening, it's a nine-point Magic lead and a growing sense that this one might not have last second drama, if only because I'm not sure the Cavs can score enough points to close this lead.
Z stopped Howard down low, and James bulls to the line for instant offense. but only one make. West's fourth foul got the Magic closer to the penalty. Pietrus missed from the corner, and West doesn't; just that fast, it was 75-70, but West got his fifth right after, and since that means Sasha Pavlovic has to come in, not a plus. Pietrus penetrated and finished, rather than take the corner three. James starting to feel it, and just bounced Howard away on a drive and make; wow. After a Magic turnover, James fed Z for a distance miss; Vareajo got the board and a Lewis foul. James missed another three that could have dropped, and the Turk answered with a drive to the line on the Pavlo Virus. Two Turk makes pushes it to seven halfway through the fourth.
Williams with a quality make off the dribble. The Turk might have gotten away with a walk on his driving miss, but Howard collects the board and went to the line, but only after five minutes of Tyler Perry Et Al. These Gatorade ads with Kevin Garnett are a lot easier to take this year!
Two big Howard makes pushed it to seven, and the Cavs have not profited from putting him on the line tonight. Z avoids an obvious traveling call to draw a foul on Tony Battie, then makes both to get it back to five. Howard gets it down low and powers through a James block attempt to get to the line. A lucky roll on the first was followed by a miss, and we're at six. James draws a 50/50 blocking foul on Pietrus, and ball karma forces two bad misses. On the second, Sideshow Vareajo picks up his fifth and does not draw a Howard technical, and I can only imagine that was his intention on that play. With 4:40 left, Howard rams the first free throw in, and the second as well. The lead ws 8 with 4:40 left, and Howard was 11-for-15 from the line.
James finally gets a three to fall, and hmm... but Alston gets it right back in the corner. James airballs a three to Vareajo for an easy lay up. The Turk realized it was the fourth quarter, so he hits. Williams with a bad miss, but Lewis can't hit the killshot three. Pietrus put James on the line with 3:03 left and the Magic holding an eight-point lead; two James makes cut it to six. Vareajo takes his sixth with speed, rather than spend any more time in the presence of Mr. Howard. After commerce, Howard missed the first as TNT wonders about intentional fouls, and hits the second. The lead was seven with 2:40 left.
James drives the lane, scores, and gets Howard's fifth foul. Holy diver. Old-school three cuts it to four, and LeBron suddenly has 38. Z sends Howard back to the line with his fifth, and the real problem with fouling Howard at this point is that I'm not sure they'lll have enough guys to do it. It is especially ineffective when Howard makes both, as he did here. Howard with 24 points in 25 minutes.
James missed the three but get the board, and Pietrus gets called for a blocking foul with 2:01 left for instant offense as van Gundy throws a rod. Karma misses, and it's six again. Alston's killshot three does not go. Williams boards, then James turns on loose interior passing to Z. The Turk runs clock and misses from the arc, but Pietrus gets the o-board that will more or less end this one, and West adds dumb to bad with a technical. Z fouls out stopping Pietrus, and the Magic are 68 seconds away.
TNT notes that there were 77 combined free throws so far tonight, and I cannot say that I have not noticed. Smith replaced Z as Lewis blows the tech. Pietrus is also not a good free throw shooter, but these two go down smooth, and it's eight and almost done. Pavlovic misses from three, and that makes them five-of-23 from the arc, 39 percent from the field in total. The Magic run clock with the Turk missing. James gets Howard's sixth on a bad call from the refs, and he barely avoids the crippling technical on his way out of the game. With 36.1 seconds left, there still should be no way the Cavs escape with a win, but Howard can still eject himself from a future playoff game...
James was five-of-10 from the line before the three attempts; after three makes, it's eight-for-13, and he now has 41 points for the night, only five of them on jump shots. Wow. Lewis makes just one, but the Cavs miss two three-point attempts, and that's that, really; what might have been a three-point game turns into eight after two Turk makes. James is blocked by Pietrus at the rim to punctuate things, and his free throw makes push the final score out. Magic 99, Cavs 89.
If you want to look at this from a Cavs perspective, they were in a game where they could not buy a jump shot from anyone. If you want to look at this realistically, they are a James miracle in Game Two from being down three games to none. Considering that the Magic were also down big in the first two games of this series, and well, I will be honest, I have no idea what to make of this series so far. But Orlando has the lead, the home court, the momentum, a 10-4 record against these Cavs, and a chance to put a hammerlock on this with a Game 4 win.
They also have Howard getting much less mileage than James; if James is losing his legs on jumpers from fatigue, which is very possible given how much effort he's had to put out in these first three games, the Cavs are done. I still think the Cavs are going to win this series, but you've got to give it up for this Magic team, who have lost multiple buzzer-beaters in the playoffs with no carryover from game to game. Give credit where due.