Late season games are hard to gauge. I am sure when the NBA made its master national television schedule, it envisioned LeBron James and Dwight Howard leading their teams into a conference titan clash that would have home court advantage in the postseason on the line.
That is not quite what happened Sunday. There was no LeBron James. There was no Shaquille O’Neal. Antawn Jamison, Mo Williams, Vince Carter and Rashard Lewis were on the bench for crunch time.
Orlando had more of its starters and key players playing down the stretch in a come-from-behind 98-92 victory in Cleveland on Sunday. But they were hardly the Cavaliers on this day.
That is what makes the results of this game so hard to gauge.
On one hand, the Magic came out flat and needed an inspired effort to erase an 16-point first half deficit and get a win against an undermanned Cavaliers team. On the other hand, the team Orlando saw today was hardly the Cleveland team it will see in the postseason.
Continuing a recent disturbing trend, Orlando seemed to be lax on defense through long periods today and Stan Van Gundy needed to light a fire under his team after it fell behind by 16 points in the second quarter. Cleveland came out the aggressors and looking like it needed a win as Orlando allowed Cleveland to get whatever it wanted offensively.
The Cavaliers, led by Antawn Jamison and Mo Williams’ nearly flawless first half, took a 28-19 lead after one quarter and expanded the lead after that. Orlando struggled to shoot and even get good looks at 3-point shots.
JJ Redick and Jameer Nelson began to pick up the pace and got Orlando to within four by the half. Orlando got back by limiting the careless turnovers and silly fouls and looking to attack off the dribble and pick and roll. Orlando often settled for long shots in the first quarter, but changed that tactic to get back in the game. With Cleveland clearly keeping the reigns on its star players today, it was enough to get Orlando back in the game.
The Magic came out of the second half roaring and quickly retook the lead, giving Dwight Howard a healthy number of touches in the low post and letting him direct the offense from the post. Howard had his way inside with O’Neal out of the game, scoring 22 points on 9-of-13 shooting and grabbing 13 rebounds. He was his usual dominant self defensively when his team needed him to.
Today’s game could be part of the chess match, or it could not. James was obviously not in the game and that completely changes what the Cavaliers want to do and can do offensively. O’Neal was out of the game, so they lost their ability to defend Howard one on one. Between Zydrunas Ilgauskas, JJ Hickson and Anderson Varejao, no one could keep Howard in front of him (provided Orlando gave him the ball).
The only concern in the post today was Ilgauskas’ offensive rebounding ability. Ilgauskas had seven offensive rebounds. Not being known for his jumping ability or mobility, a lot of Ilgauskas’ work came in using his long reach to tip the ball to himself around the basket. The Magic will have to learn to get a body on him better the next time these two teams meet.
The other question scouts hoped to learn from this game was whether Antawn Jamison could neutralize Rashard Lewis. Again, tough to judge with the conditions in this game.
Jamison got going early, getting Lewis in foul trouble in the first quarter and going six for seven from the floor in the first half. He slowed down considerably in the second half, but he also did not play much in the fourth quarter. Jamison ended with 19 points.
Lewis came back strong in the third quarter to help Orlando build a lead of its own. Lewis finished with 11 points, many of them during that third quarter run.
Consider that matchup somewhere near a wash today, possibly leaning toward Jamison.
The bigger concern for Orlando at the moment is the recent stretch of play. The Magic have played well enough to win but have not dominated. The defense has lost its focus, but the team has ratcheted it up at crucial times.
It is the type of in and out focus Stan Van Gundy hates to see and what he has been complaining about even as the Magic have dominated their opponents this past week.
Is it a cause for concern? Maybe.
Orlando struggled to end last season and still made the Finals. But many players said the rest they got before the postseason last year and the relaxation beforehand led to the struggles in the Philadelphia series.
To their credit, the Magic found a way to win and are keeping the winning mentality at the end of this season. And credit Van Gundy for making sure Orlando got the win.