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Orlando Magic can’t stop LeBron James in Game 5 loss

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I was on the ESPN NBA Today podcast this morning. You can get to that on iTunes or by clicking here. Tonight’s momentous performance from LeBron James once again made it clear: when LeBron is on, truly playing at the top of his game, it doesn’t matter what Mickael Pietrus, Hedo Turkoglu, Dwight Howard or a variety of other help defenders do — James cannot be stopped. He can go over, under, around and through any defender that comes his way. The Magic can only keep their arms up, hope he misses and pray they don’t hear a whistle. James played his finest game of the series, scoring 37 points and finding his teammates on 12 occasions. He made 50 percent of his outside shots and reached the free-throw line 19 times. And it wasn’t because of any tactical changes by the Magic — LeBron was just in another world, fluidly penetrating the lane and seeing the play develop an instant before any defender did. A couple years ago, LeBron scored the final 25 points of Cleveland’s Game 5 victory over the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals, saving the Cavs’ season and eventually leading them to the NBA Finals. His performance tonight was of the same grain, as he took over and made sure the Cavs would head back to Orlando for Game 6. The Cavs were losing 79-75 with 39 seconds left when he officially took over. He played a part in every Cleveland field goal after that point, going 6-for-11 and distributing five assists as the Cavaliers outscored Orlando by 14 the rest of the way. The Cavs finally got significant contributions from the other guys. Mo Williams broke out of his shooting slump, going 8-of-16 for 24 points. Zydrunas Ilgauskas (16 points) Delonte West (13 points) and Boobie Gibson (11 points) also reached double-figures. These guys finally did their jobs and didn’t leave LeBron out to dry. The Magic simply couldn’t stop the Cavaliers. It was that simple. Even after the Magic weathered an inspired first-quarter outburst for the Cavs, who hit 10 of their first 11 shots and led by 32-10 at one point, the Magic were able to battle their way back into the game and build a small third-quarter lead. That margin, of course, disappeared as the Cavs scored 34 points on 21 possessions in the fourth quarter. Just like the previous four games, the Cavs isolated LeBron with shooters in the corners on almost every crunch-time play. Only this time, it couldn’t be stopped. LeBron made a few mid-range jumpers, ala Paul Pierce, and he found Boobie Gibson for an important 3 on the wing. And Anderson Varejao had two big lay-ups off James passes before fouling out. To all of us who said the Cavs needed more movement in their offense… to quote Dave Matthews, for tonight, one night, we were wrong. There are two very simple yet undoubtedly accurate patterns that have shown up in this series. 1. When LeBron James scores more than 40 points, the Cavaliers lose. 2. When a Cavaliers player besides LeBron James scores at least 20 points, the Cavaliers win. All things considered, I think much of Cleveland’s offensive success can be attributed to the home crowd and the confidence that came with it. The Magic suffered a breakdown on offense unlike any game this series. Offensive problems 1. Lack of ball movement. The Magic finished with 12 assists, their lowest total since the first game of the season on Oct. 29. A few choice possessions aside, the Magic were noticeably less cohesive on offense. The Cavs helped less on Hedo Turkoglu on pick-and-rolls, Rafer Alston played poorly all-around, and the Cavs did a better job of rotating and stepping in the passing lanes. 2. Skip went cold. To say the averages evened out with Rafer Alston tonight would be an overstatement. Alston went colder than I’ve ever seen him, missing nine of ten shots and finishing with three points in 28 minutes. Despite the shooting woes, Alston played the key crunch-time minutes for Orlando, with Courtney Lee on the bench. 3. Rashard was nowhere to be found. The Magic have leaned on Lewis as a key scorer in the fourth quarter so far this series. Lewis scored just four points and zero free-throws in the second half, as he was unable to mount much against any of the opposing bigs. The solution? Amway Arena is sure to be kinder to the Magic, and there’s no way Lewis and Alston will shoot that poorly again in Game 6. I was surprised we didn’t see the Lee-Pietrus-Turkoglu-Lewis-Howard lineup in the fourth quarter, considering that’s Orlando’s best defensive lineup and the Cavs were scoring at will. Instead, Alston played and chucked up a couple bad 3s and allowed Boobie Gibson to hit a huge 3 down the stretch. That lineup is my favorite lineup, and I’d like to see it during the important minutes provided Alston isn’t feeling it like he was in Game 4. Overall, this loss isn’t a crushing blow to the Magic. Game 6 is important — very important — but it’s not must-win. The Magic have already proven they can win a Game 7 against a great team in a hostile environment. But obviously the Magic would like to close this thing out in Orlando. I think we’re in for a classic Game 6.