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Posted: Thursday May 21, 2009 1:49AM; Updated: Thursday May 21, 2009 10:59AM
Steve Aschburner Steve Aschburner >
INSIDE THE NBA

Magic show grit, Cavaliers finally getting tested; more observations

Story Highlights

Labeled as "soft," the Magic showed toughness in rallying past the Cavs in Game 1

LeBron James scored 49 in the loss, but allowing him to get his is a risky strategy

After breezing through the first two rounds, the Cavaliers' resolve will be tested

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Dwight Howard (12) had 30 points and 13 rebounds as the Magic handed the Cavaliers their third home loss of the season.
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Five playoff thoughts -- or should we say, fi' playoff thoughts, while setting aside any notion of fo', fo', fo' and fo' for the Cleveland Cavaliers ...

1. Orlando is either unusually tough for a team built around jump shooters or remarkably finesse-full for a team that's so tough.

The twain rarely meet in the NBA -- perimeter-oriented teams frequently get characterized as "soft,'' while more resilient clubs typically demonstrate that by forcing action inside and getting to the line for ugly wins. But Orlando, in rallying for a 3-2 series deficit against Boston last week, proved wrong critics who felt it was as squeezable as Charmin, and it did it again Wednesday night in its 107-106 comeback victory (RECAP | BOX) over Cleveland in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals.

Sure, the Magic jump-shot themselves back into the game, hitting 62.5 percent (35-of-56) over the final three quarters after a 8-of-22 start. Sure, seven of their nine three-pointers came after intermission. But they took care of business in more gritty ways, too. Such as their 50 points in the paint. Their 36-33 rebounding edge. The 19 points they allowed in the third quarter. And the discipline to whittle the Cavaliers' 15- point halftime lead down to nothing -- in fact, an 85-84 Orlando lead -- over the first 14 minutes of the second half. None of that NBA cliché alibiing ("They used up so much energy clawing back that they had nothing left'') from the Magic. They stayed focused, they stayed true to the things that got them this far -- Dwight Howard inside, everybody else outside -- and they did it in the league's most difficult arena for visiting teams. If you're scoring at home, the Cavaliers are 43-3 now at the Q, regular season and playoffs.

"They hit us first,'' said Rashard Lewis, whose 17 points over the final two quarters were only six fewer than LeBron James scored in that span, his 7-of-8 shooting -- including the game-winning three-pointer with 14.7 seconds left -- nearly as impressive as what the King did. "I feel like we only played one half tonight, and that was the second half. We were a little timid in the first half. ... Coach got into us at halftime. I thought we played tremendous defense the second half, as well as moved the ball around.''

Lewis added: "Coach mentioned to us on the bench that we'd been in tough situations like this in the playoffs. Cleveland hadn't.''

Orlando's defense put the Cavaliers into a way-back machine, Cleveland reverting down the stretch to its retro LeBron and Four Guys Watching mode. It surely planted doubts, too, with the way it blew past the Cavs' playoff standards -- from a 78.1 defensive average to 107 points allowed, from an 8-0 record built on an average scoring margin of +16.8 points to this deflating home loss. Don't forget, either, that when the teams met in April in central Florida, the Magic waltzed in a 116-87 victory and now have won three of four meetings since November.

2. Letting LeBron get his might work after all.

Asked about that possible tactic before the series -- accepting the impossibility of containing James, so clamping down as much as possible on his teammates -- Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy answered that question with a question. "How many are we talking about?'' he wondered. If it were 30 points, sure, Van Gundy conceded, that might work. The problem with guys like James, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade and one or two others, he said, is that each of them can rear up and score 50 on you.

Or, in this case, 49. James set his personal playoff high, topping that memorable game in 2007 against Detroit when he scored 48, by hitting 20 of his 30 field-goal attempts. He had 16 of Cleveland's 18 during a late stretch in the first half, and eight in the game's final four minutes. But James was dragging when coach Mike Brown called a timeout with 2:47 left and, after the final horn, the Cavs' star lingered on the floor -- surrounded by staffers -- as he inventoried the cramps clenching in his legs.

Van Gundy got some nice mileage out of Mickael Pietrus as a defensive option on James, which allowed Hedo Turkoglu to devote more energy to offense (15 points, 14 assists) while keeping him out of foul trouble. He also was able to cover James' point total with just two Magic starters; Lewis and Howard combined for 52. Still, letting James get his remains a risky strategy.

"If that were my formula, it still got them 107 points and great shooting,'' the Orlando coach told reporters afterward. "The one thing I don't leave this game with is any idea what to do with him whatsoever. You'd like to come out of Game 1 and say, 'At least we found a game plan that will work.' We can't say that.''

3. Cleveland finally is getting tested.

Enough already with the red carpet. This is competition, not a coronation. The Cavaliers had breezed through two rounds with eight easy victories, all decided by double digits. They had nine days to lounge around after dispatching Detroit, eight days to laze about after smacking down Atlanta. Those days are done, and you get the sense Cleveland -- the team anyway, not the fans -- is fine facing a tougher go of it.

"It's always good,'' James said. "Nobody said it was going to be easy.''

The beauty of the playoffs are the adjustments required, as two opponents learn each other's game plans almost as thoroughly as they know their own. The Cavaliers barely did any of that through their first two series. Now, finally, we get to see their championship resolve -- if it exists -- emerge. Something tells me, if Brown has anything to say about it, Orlando won't be shooting 55 percent from the field Friday night.

4. Howard brought down the shot clock but needed help to bring down the Cavs.

He got it, too. As if the Cavaliers hadn't waited long enough to get busy again, they and the Magic had to deal with a delay of nearly 8½ minutes after Howard, on a dunk for Orlando's first points, caused the shot clock atop that basket to collapse backward. It was replaced for the rest of the first half by old-fashioned, boxy clocks in the corners of the court, then swapped out at halftime for a completely new stanchion.

The Orlando center scored 13 more baskets and finished with 30 points, but he was watching helplessly from the side for the game's last 25.6 seconds, picking up his sixth foul on a shaky call when James attacked him inside. Lewis scored eight of the Magic's final 12 points and Turkoglu was a revelation directing the attack. He scored nine points in the fourth quarter, snookered Anderson Varejao into a frustrating foul by jumping into him with 1:17 left and repeatedly was caught by the cameras smiling and enjoying what so many in his spot would feel as pressure or tension.

5. Even pigeons didn't like Cleveland's bench in Game 1.

Orlando's reserves outscored the backup Cavs 25-5. You might argue that they had to, given that the Magic were more worn down (they played seven games against Boston, with a couple of flights mixed into their 72-hour turnaround). But that doesn't excuse the chintzy contributions from Joe Smith (five points, one rebound, a minus-8 rating), Wally Szczerbiak (0-of-2 shooting, minus-7), Ben Wallace (no points, minus-14) or Daniel Gibson (3:14 on the court, zeroes across the board). And it doesn't explain the DNP-CD of Sasha Pavlovic when Mo Williams and Delonte West were combining to miss 20 of their first 28 shots.

 
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