In a tight game in Cleveland, one superstar stepped up and answered the call. Another disappeared. The one with the ball for the Magic could not make enough plays to will his team to victory. The one on the Cavaliers could.
There may not be any indication of how far apart the first place Cavaliers are from the second place Magic then the final five minutes of Thursday’s game at Quicken Loans Arena. LeBron James took over, getting inside the lane and dishing out to Delonte West for a 3-pointer or putting together a series of dribble moves before stepping back and draining a 3-pointer with Mickael Pietrus in his face.
Dwight Howard was nowhere to be found. Jameer Nelson could not create off the dribble — or finish at the rim. And Vince Carter continued to puzzle as he too could not finish and struggled from the floor again.
That all spelled a 115-106 loss entering the All Star break as Cleveland finished the game on a 21-10 kick after the game was tied at 96 with about six minutes to play.
That was really the difference in the game as the Magic did a good job adjusting to whatever the Cavaliers threw at them and forcing them to play a smaller lineup. It is tough to gauge how these two teams might play each other in the postseason (which is still a long ways away) — especially without Mo Williams in the lineup for Cleveland.
But the final six minutes of the fourth quarter showed something is very difference. Orlando could not execute in the final stages of the game and watched helplessly as James dominated the fourth quarter.
Here is how the top players in the game fared: James scored 32 points, grabbed eight rebounds and dished out 13 assists (eight in the first half). Dwight Howard played well with 19 points and 11 rebounds, shooting six of nine from the field and seven of 10 from the line. Rashard Lewis also had 19 points and Jameer Nelson had 13 points, but on 4-of-14 shooting.
Vince Carter was the most disappointing as he had some wild shots and, while attacking the basket more, struggled to finish. He had 14 points on 5-of-16 shooting.
It was clear throughout the game that Orlando had advantages with Lewis and Howard. Howard did not touch the ball after he was forced out of bounds by Shaquille O’Neal and called for a turnover. But Howard played very well. He displayed a variety of post moves — both power and finesse. When O’Neal was on him, he used his quickness to get running hook shots or get around O’Neal. When Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Anderson Varejao or J.J. Hickson was on him, he again used his quickness and powered his way to the rim.
It would have been nice to see Howard get the ball late in the game as he is still the center of the offense and where everything needs to go. He struggled with fouls again tonight, ultimately committing five, but did a good job protecting the basket and changing shots.
Although the strategy of the night called for him to front O’Neal and have Lewis help on the back side. This worked to a certain extent, but allowed O’Neal to get position inside, allowed Hickson and Varejao to cut to the basket because they were being ignored — the two combined for 36 points — and put Lewis in foul trouble. Lewis being in foul trouble was a bigger deal than anything in this game as Cleveland built a 14-point first quarter lead.
The Cavaliers continued to struggle defending Lewis at the stretch-4 position. Lewis also had 19 points and shot six of 19 from the floor and three of nine from beyond the arc. Not impressive numbers, but Lewis was creating a lot off the dribble and scoring in a variety of ways. Hickson and Varejao could not keep up with him and ultimately Mike Brown had to put James at the four to matchup.
This was a tough game for Orlando. Coming off a back-to-back and playing five games in seven days, it certainly looked like early that the Magic were going to struggle to get their legs under them and focus for the entire game. Orlando was down 37-23 after one quarter and gave up 52.4 percent shooting.
The bench helped the Magic cut into the lead and get back in the game, which the starters promptly continued as they scored 40 points in the second quarter.
But after using 3-pointers to come back in the first half, the 3-pointers dried up in the second. Orlando finished 10 of 26 from beyond the arc and hit most of them in the first half. The Cavaliers made nine of 20 and they a bunch came at key moments late in the game.
Orlando just failed to execute late tonight. There should be no need to worry about whether the Magic can defeat the Cavaliers in a seven-game series. But we will find out again in a week in Orlando on Feb. 21.