Tuesday May 19th, 2009

OVERVIEW: The well-rested Cavs have been on cruise control the entire postseason, pounding Detroit and Atlanta by an average of 16.8 points per game. But, after an eight-day layoff, they will have to shift gears for the Eastern Conference finals. Outside of the Lakers, no team has played Cleveland as tough this season as Orlando, which owns two home victories against the Cavs and a narrow road loss during which two questionable calls went against the Magic in the final minute. Dig deeper and you will find that Orlando has won eight of 11 games against the Cavs, including three of its last four at raucous Quicken Loans Arena.

Tempo will be the key. Orlando doesn't want to get into a track meet with Cleveland -- "We can't let them make everything transition," Magic guard Anthony Johnson said -- but it does want to make the Cavs scramble in the half court. Orlando's most effective play against Boston in the conference semifinals was the pick-and-roll, which led to dribble penetration and open looks for the Magic's wealth of shooters. Expect Orlando to go back to that early and often to try to create opportunities for Hedo Turkoglu (16.0 points against Cleveland in the regular season), Rashard Lewis (15.7) and Courtney Lee (12.0).



1. Controlling the paint. For the most part, the Cavs had free reign in the first two rounds. In this series they will have to contend with Howard, the freshly anointed Defensive Player of the Year who averaged 3.67 blocks against Cleveland in the regular season. The consensus among NBA scouts is that to beat the Cavs you must turn them into a jump-shooting team, so Howard's ability to alter shots and make LeBron James, Mo Williams and Delonte West think twice about taking the ball to the basket will be critical.

2. Cleveland's third scorer. West's stellar postseason play has helped the Cavs coast into the conference finals. After averaging 11.7 points (on 45.7 percent shooting) in the regular season, West has increased his scoring to 13.3 points (on 48.1 percent shooting) in the playoffs. He had a 21-point, six-rebound, four-assist effort in the Game 4 clincher against Atlanta. Stopping James and Williams is hard enough; adding a potent, efficient West to the list may prove too tall a task for Orlando.

3. Defending Howard. While Boston could afford to defend Howard one-on-one because of the size, length and mobility of Kendrick Perkins, the Cavs have no such luxury. (Cleveland, however, has a much deeper front line than Boston.) Howard could explode this series if Zydrunas Ilgauskas is left alone to defend him.

Devising a scheme to defend Howard is complicated. On one hand, you can't allow him to make deep catches and get easy looks in the paint. That not only leads to layups and dunks but also potentially gets players in foul trouble, as Howard is strong enough to finish with defenders grabbing him. But you don't want to double-team too quickly, because a three-pointer seemingly is just as easy as a close-range shot for some Magic players. Look for the Cavs to mix up their coverages with Howard early before deploying their bench depth late to try to make him earn his points from the free-throw line.



J.J. Redick was a key contributor in the Boston series, averaging 25.6 minutes as a starter, providing solid defense on Allen and chipping in 12- and 15-point performances in Games 1 and 2, respectively. That stands in stark contrast to his output against Cleveland in the regular season, when he played just eight minutes in Orlando's blowout victory in April and picked up DNP-CDs in the other two games. Redick figures to lose some of his minutes to Lee, who has been effective guarding James in limited opportunities. But Redick's play against the Celtics has earned him minutes, and he is a dangerous three-point shooter the Cavs will have to account for.

• The talk in the Magic locker room after Game 7 in Boston was how important it would be for them to win Game 1 in Cleveland. The Cavs showed no signs of rust after the nine-day layoff between the first and second round, hammering Atlanta by 17 points in Game 1. But Orlando brings much more to the table than the just-happy-to-be-there Hawks. If the Magic can jump out to an early lead, like they did in Game 7 against the Celtics, and force Cleveland to come from behind for a change, Orlando can seize home-court advantage.


UNDER THE RADAR: Marcin Gortat is known more for his mouth (remember when he affirmed Shaquille O'Neal's comments on Van Gundy's lack of poise under pressure?) than his play, but that assessment could be changing. After a ho-hum regular season (3.8 points, 4.5 rebounds), Gortat was quietly effective in limited minutes against Boston, scoring seven points in 20 minutes in Game 3 and eight points in nine minutes in Game 4. (He shot 12-of-13 for the series.) An offensive spark from a big man not named Howard might just be what Orlando needs against Cleveland.


PREDICTION: Cavs in 6. The Cavs will be pushed, but they are too tough and too fresh for an Orlando team that has had to walk through fire to get to this point. Look for a big series from Williams, who will be playing in his first conference finals. Williams has earned James' trust and will get plenty of open looks when the Magic mix up their defense.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.