For much of the NBA’s conference finals round, the Denver Nuggets and Orlando Magic had us thinking that the NBA might actually be a team league as opposed to a league in which the path to success is paved by individual stars.
The truth lies in between. Not since the Hakeem Olajuwon’s Houston Rockets won two NBA titles in the mid-1990s has a one-man team taken the NBA title. Even Michael Jordan had Scottie Pippen.
At the same time, a team without a super weapon is no more likely to take the title. At some point in the life of every NBA team someone must be able to score without regard for how he’s defended. But that’s not an issue if the team can’t keep a game warm for its star.
Cleveland finished the regular season at 66-16, the 10th best record in NBA history. But the Cavs didn’t perform evenly against the very top teams, losing four of their five games during the regular season against the two NBA finalists, Orlando and the Los Angeles Lakers.
Their reliance on James was especially pronounced during the post-season. In the regular season, the Cavs scored 100.3 points per game, with James averaging 28.4. In the playoffs, the Cavs averaged 97.6 points per game, with James averaging 35.3.
With James and little else, the Cavs weren’t going to survive against Orlando in the playoffs, and those of us who thought otherwise must be much too preoccupied with glamor. Either that, or we thought Mo Williams would be enough to put the Cavs over the top, because they certainly weren’t going to make up a deep match against Orlando’s Dwight Howard.
The Cavaliers couldn’t cook up an answer for Howard, not even from combinations, because they lack the size and sheer energy up front. Centers Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Ben Wallace combined for averages of 41.7 minutes and 11.6 points in the playoffs. Power forward Anderson Varejao scored only 6.9 points per game in the playoffs.
If the Cavs could make up for that lack of front punch in the backcourt, they might have lasted a little longer.
The acquisition of Williams and his reliable 17 points per game made the Cavs that much better during the regular season, and they have the 66 wins to prove it. But it now falls to the Cavs to bring their front line up to championship quality.
It doesn’t mean the Cavaliers need to bring in a top star. They might do well enough with, for example, Josh Childress, who played last season in Greece. He can add defense and double-figure scoring to the mix. It could be enough.
The Cavs really aren’t far away. It just seems like they are because they didn’t at any time control their conference finals series against Orlando. From the moment the Magic won the opener in Cleveland on May 20, the Cavs were battled up hill before falling in six games.
In Cleveland’s first three losses of the series, James scored 49, 41 and 44 points. Finally, in Game 6, he fell to 25 points, his lowest output in more than a month, and the Cavs went away quietly.
James is gone for another playoffs now, leaving the NBA Finals stage to Bryant. It’s been seven years since Bryant won an NBA title and, as the usual complaint has it, he still hasn’t won as the main attraction on his team. But after two games of the Finals, it’s all but certain Bryant is no more than a week from changing all that.
The Lakers won the first two games in the Finals, both in Los Angeles. A 100-75 win over Orlando in the opener set such a dominant tone that even a close Magic win in Game 2 would have made the series still appear uneven. As the Lakers won that close Game 2, however, the series went to Orlando with the Magic needing an awesome turnaround.
The Lakers’ early dominance in the Finals rested on four pillars.
First, as always, is Bryant, who scored 40 in the opener and totaled 69 in the first two games. The Lakers will always go through him, and he’ll miss a lot of shots, but he’s present all over the floor, a great mid-range player who goes to the line 10 times per game.
Second is power forward Pao Gasol, a true No. 2 scoring threat that neither the Cavs nor Magic can match. Gasol’s points, coming down low, show up more reliably than the points for Williams or Orlando’s usual second option, Hedo Turkoglu. In the first two Finals games, Gasol scored 40 points.
Third is the defensive plan against Howard, who manages to be the Magic’s key offensive player without a great set of post moves. He influences games with loose shots and put backs.
The Lakers have consistently surrounded Howard with two and three players. When they back off and leave Howard alone against Gasol, the Magic star plays as if in shock.
Howard shot only nine times in the 101-96 overtime loss in Game 2. For the last three minutes of the overtime period, he didn’t even touch the ball.
Fourth is the disappearance of Orlando’s long-range shooting game. The Magic never made fewer than one-third of its three-point attempts against Cleveland, bombing a blistering 38 for 97 in those six games. But the Orlando guards hit only six of 26 shots in Game 2 against Los Angeles, including one of 12 from three-point range.
The Finals can change quickly, of course, if the Magic can regain the outside shot. The Lakers aren’t exactly hanging all over the Orlando guards, as they’re so concerned about Howard. Once the Magic take advantage and make the long ball, suddenly the Lakers would have to pay attention, they’d have to back off Howard and the game starts looking a lot different.
But it would have to happen quickly, probably more quickly than it can. It appears Bryant will beat James to the title, which shouldn’t be too surprising. Bryant has a better team, which is why the Magic don’t even look like the same team against the Lakers.
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