The jinx e-mails were expected; the Magic's dominance was not
E-mails about the author's SI cover story jinx on the Cavaliers were inevitable
Despite what Cleveland fans think, the Cavs are limited against the Magic
The Magic have played otherworldly basketball and have controlled this series
Yes, the jinx e-mails come in steadily now. That was inevitable. The Cleveland Cavaliers are down 3-1 to the Orlando Magic. They are one loss away from elimination ... and from extending the interminable Cleveland championship drought by one more season. They are one loss away from crushing my hometown city's unbreakable heart for the 45th consecutive year.
Yes, the jinx e-mails come in steadily now. The "this is your fault" e-mails. The "you are not welcome back in Cleveland" e-mails. The "how could you do this to your hometown?" e-mails. I wrote the Sports Illustrated cover story about Cleveland last week. I dared the sporting gods. And the sporting gods are vengeful.
Of course, I also wrote a Sports Illustrated cover story about Kansas City Royals pitcher Zack Greinke ... and he's 8-1 with a 0.84 ERA. Greinke pitched again Tuesday -- precisely at the same time Cleveland and Orlando played Game 4 -- and he threw his fifth complete game of the season (as many as any team in baseball). He struck out eight, and he did not walk anybody. He allowed the Detroit Tigers one run (he has allowed two runs or fewer in all 10 of his starts this year).
I also wrote a Sports Illustrated cover story on Albert Pujols, and he drove in two more runs Tuesday night. He is hitting .323, and is on pace to hit 50 homers, drive in 143 runs, walk 129 times and score 135 runs. His Cardinals -- thanks in large part to Pujols' hitting, some quadruple switches by manager Tony La Russa* and the continuing rehabilitation powers of pitching coach Dave Duncan -- are in first place in the National League Central.
*La Russa, who had already more or less invented the concepts of pitchers hitting eighth and using four relievers to get out of an inning, has come up with this new quirk: the quadruple switch. He uses it regularly so that he can get his hands team out there.
It works like so: La Russa will bring in a reliever (that's switch No. 1), he will move his shortstop to second (switch two), he will move his second baseman to right field (switch three) and he will bring in a new shortstop who will hit in the pitcher's spot (switch four).
Or he will bring in a reliever (switch one), move his third baseman to second (switch two), move his second baseman to right (switch three) and bring in a new third baseman who will hit in the pitcher's spot (switch four).
Or he will move his shortstop to third ... OK, you get the point. He's like a hockey coach calling for a line change.
This is not to shirk the blame. I am well, well aware Cleveland sports have their own haunted history with Sports Illustrated. Back in 1987, the magazine picked the Indians to be the best team in the American League ... and they would have been, too, had it not been for the other 11 teams in the league. The Indians finished dead last, with 101 losses, and as a Cleveland fan, it seemed a lot more fun to blame a magazine cover than to blame a management team that decided to build its pitching staff around 48-year-old Phil Niekro and 42-year-old Steve Carlton.
So, sure, I have lived the SI jinx as a fan. I understand the e-mails. I understand the feelings of the news anchor who, in response to Cleveland trailing Orlando in Game 2, said, "I'm canceling my Sports Illustrated subscription." I understand the texts I'm getting from friends in Cleveland who say, "I wouldn't plan any trips here anytime soon."
But I also understand that this series has not been about jinxes. It has not been about Cleveland curses. There have been no fluky plays, no interceptions in the end zone, no fumbles at the goal line, no errors in the ninth inning, no third-base coaches inexplicably holding up runners, no 98-yard drives in the final seconds. No, the Magic have flat outplayed Cleveland through four games.
The games have been close, but the sense of purpose has not. The Cavaliers have mostly been a one-man team with LeBron James. And while LeBron makes one heck of a one-man team -- the guy has averaged 42 points, seven rebounds, seven assists, two steals and a block -- no team, not even Gene Hackman's team in Hoosiers, wins with fewer than five players on the floor. Nobody has stepped up to be Robin to LeBron's Batman.
Meanwhile, the Magic have come at Cleveland with a flurry of offensive weapons -- the Cavaliers' defense has been bewildered. One minute, it's Dwight Howard dominating inside. The next, it's Mickael Pietrus or Rafer Alston or Rashard Lewis making some ridiculous three-point bomb*. The next, it's Hedo Turkoglu using his patented, "I'm not going to shoot, not going to shoot, oh wait, yes, I just remembered, I am going to shoot" offensive move. And so on.
*Does anyone else find it interesting that the Magic made more than 800 three-pointers in each of the last two seasons -- the only team in NBA history to do that -- and they've done it with J.J. Redick, the NCAA's all-time leader in three-pointers, mostly watching from the bench? That should help everyone understand just how big a gap there is between college ball and the NBA. Redick made 457 three-pointers in college, and he's like the fifth- or sixth-best three-point shooter on his own NBA team.
The Magic have played otherworldly basketball and, more to the point, the Magic have controlled these games. And by control I don't mean the score -- the Cavaliers have had leads in all four games -- I mean that the Cavaliers' main defensive posture this whole series has been, "I hope they start missing some shots." As James points out, Cleveland has not had a single big stop the entire series.
The series isn't over, of course, and there's a chance that the Cavaliers could find something at home in Game 5 that could change the complexion of things. History says it will be tough: Orlando has owned Cleveland the last three years or so, now having won 11 of the last 15. Many people have pointed out that only eight teams in NBA history have come back from a 3-1 playoff deficit -- and no team has done it in a conference finals since 1981. This Orlando team seems too diverse, too spirited and too confident to lose three games in a row.
But that's what is left for the Cleveland Cavaliers. They had the best record in the NBA this year. They swept their first two series. They held opponents to 91 points per game -- two points fewer than any other team in the league. They have the best player in the world. And so there are two possibilities: They will find a way to slow down Orlando's attack, find the rhythm that made them so dominant during the season, find the second and third option to go with James. That's the first possibility.
And the second possibility? I can find a disguise for when I go back to Cleveland.
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