The matchup is finally set. In a series they should have won about a week ago, the Orlando Magic finally put together 8 solid quarters of basketball to knock off the Boston Celtics and win their Best-of-7 Eastern Conference Semi-Final series. Their prize is a trip to Cleveland for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals at The Q on Wednesday Night.
We all know that the Magic won 2-of-3 from the Cavs this season, including an embarrassing performance on April 3rd. You are bound to hear many in the main-stream-media talk about how the Magic could possibly be the favorite in this series. Fine with me, they are the favorite. If LeBron and the Cavs needed a chip, or any further motivation, this will be it. Of course, Orlando will likely play the R-E-S-P-E-C-T card but the Cavaliers have it locked up for now. Sure, the Cavs are the #1 seed. Yes, they won 66 games. Of course, they went 39-2 at home. Win all 8 playoff games by double digits? Did that too. Still, you hear how the Cavs "haven't been tested". Keep it comin'.
With all that in mind, I did put together a couple of thoughts about this series. Truths, if you will, about what is to come and what to expect. We'll break it down much more as we move closer to Game 1, but this is a nice time to bring people up to speed.
This series is going to be tough. That's ok, and as a matter of fact, it should be. This is the Eastern Conference Finals. We are down to the best four teams remaining. Does anyone think that Cleveland, Orlando, Los Angeles or Denver are undeserving? While the Cavaliers have made it look easy so far, Orlando does present some challenges to the Cavs that will have to be addressed. The Magic are long and athletic, especially in the back court. The Cavaliers are small at guard and can struggle with 'bigger' teams. That said, Orlando is going to have to prove it can shoot its way through another 7-game series, against a better defensive team.
Yes, the Magic dominated the Cavaliers twice in Florida. Let's not forget, however, that the Cavs were missing both Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Delonte West from their 11-point loss. In the second loss to Orlando, the Cavs were embarrassed. Sure, they arrived in Florida after 6AM from Washington, was playing the second night of a road back-to-back, and were without Ben Wallace. Still, being down 40-points, and enduring the worst loss of the LeBron James era was embarrassing. The Cavs, when playing their regular unit(minus the Philly Game since LeBron, Z and Mo did not play), haven't lost since - they are 13-0.
Both teams are as healthy as they are going to get, and with days off after every game, rest will not be a problem.
As even as it gets. Two numbers jump out at me, however. The Cavs actually shoot a higher percentage from distance, and the Cavaliers are a much better team from the free- throw line. In a physical series like this, free throws could become huge. Z, Delonte West, Mo Williams, Wally Szczerbiak are all clutch free throw shooters, and LeBron has been over 80% in the 4th quarters of games this year. Should games come down to free throws, the Cavs have a bit of an advantage.
With Anderson Varejao starting, and Ben Wallace coming off the bench, the Cavs are much better equipped to deal with Dwight Howard. Don't get me wrong, Howard will still get his, he's a great defender and rebounder, but Varejao and Wallace will make him work for everything. The Magic really don't have an inside presence when Howard is out of the game. Look for Cleveland to attack him early and often to get him into foul trouble.
LeBron James is the MVP, and he is on a mission. This is nothing personal to the Magic. They have a great player. LeBron James, however, is generational. He has that 'IT' that MJ had, that Tiger Woods has. A burning, insatiable desire to win and be the best. He has been to the Finals and knows that he needs to turn his game up every step of the way. With a much better supporting cast around him, the Cavs are in better shape in 2009 than they were in 2007.
39-2. Even if Orlando dominates every game in Florida, they still have to find a way to do what only one team did when the Cavaliers were really trying - win in Cleveland. The Cavs are healthy and the crowd will be in full throat. Won't happen.
There are just some of the thoughts meandering through my mind as we get set for Game 1. Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments.