Lewis holds key to Magic's success

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Lewis understands that if he doesn't make his open three-pointers in the playoffs this season, the Magic aren't going to win a championship. Whatever you think of Vince Carter, the Magic offense still relies on the spacing achieved between Dwight Howard in the low block and their catch-and-shoot marksmen who "stretch" opposing defenses away from the star center by maneuvering for open looks outside the three-point arc.

The 6-foot-10 Lewis is a key linchpin in this strategy, which is patterned after the Houston championship teams of the early '90s. By surrounding Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon with a bevy of long-range shooters -- Sam Cassell, Vernon Maxwell, Mario Elie, Kenny Smith -- the Rockets discovered a new potency for the three-point weapon: Make opponents pick their poison between single-covering Olajuwon down low or leaving one of those shooters open. The matchup problems for Houston's opponents became even more acute because the Rockets had a power forward who was also deadly from the perimeter, forcing teams to exhaust their own power forward extending out to guard him, or going smaller or losing strength on the boards against Olajuwon.

The Rockets' stretch four during those championship years was Robert Horry. It is no coincidence that Horry began honing his legacy as "Big Shot Rob" at the same time he inhabited the role.

Now, the Magic are counting on Lewis, 30, to be their "Big Shot 'Shard." That was certainly the motivation for Orlando general manager Otis Smith, who flabbergasted the rest of the league by signing Lewis to a whopping six-year, $113 million contract in the summer of 2007.

"We just couldn't afford to lose him; we thought he was that important to our team," Smith said. "We approached the season with that in mind. We didn't want him on any other team. We thought his style of play was a perfect fit alongside Dwight and Jameer [Nelson] and Turk [the since-departed HedoTurkoglu] at the time. And he has had a huge impact. [The signing was] definitely part of the turning point for our team."

The dividends really paid off in the Magic's stunning upset of Cleveland in last year's Eastern Conference finals. A Cavs team that had won 74 of 90 games in the regular season and playoffs leading into that series couldn't contend with the size and outside shooting prowess of Lewis and fellow forward Turkoglu. On more than one occasion, but especially to close out Game 1 and in the overtime win in Game 4, Lewis' clutch three-pointers were vital to the Magic's upset.

It could have been sweet redemption for Lewis, who, along with Smith, was widely mocked for the size of his contract. But asked about the level of satisfaction he felt from undercutting his critics with his crunch-time performance, his voice hardens with determination.

"There's no satisfaction because we haven't won an NBA championship yet," he said. "Last year was great but this is a new year and we still have a chip on our shoulder."

The new year brought changes, most significantly the departure of Turkoglu and the arrival of Carter, whose offensive style is more ball-centric and geared toward mid-range shooting. As a partial consequence, Lewis' numbers are down across the board -- minutes, rebounds, assists and shot attempts from the field, the three-point arc and the foul line.

"It's been a little bit of an adjustment," Lewis said. "Vince is a totally different player than Hedo -- sometimes he's better when he can be dominant. The chemistry may have been a little rocky at first, but we're all beginning to learn each other and now we're getting better. That's what matters. It doesn't matter if you are up and down early in the season.

"This year, even before training camp started, I looked at all the talent Otis brought in and I started saying that if we are going to win a championship, we have to sacrifice. Guys can't be upset about not getting shots some nights because there are going to be those nights for everybody."

According to Smith, this selfless attitude is another reason why Lewis is getting the big bucks.

"I contend that his personality is as important as his shooting for this team," Smith said. "Having Dwight and Vince and Jameer, it is hard for everyone to get all the hype, but he's been below the radar his entire career. He just goes about his business and at the end of the game you look up and he's got 18 [points] and six [rebounds] or 18 and nine. Dwight is our franchise player. Your best player has to understand he is your best player, and your role players have to understand they are your role players."

Lately, Lewis has endured a wretched slump that has him a long way from fulfilling his role. Last Saturday, he was torched by Washington's AndrayBlatche, who outscored him 32-3 as Lewis picked up four fouls in less than 18 minutes. The next night, he went 1-for-7 from the field and, again, finished with three points in a home loss to Charlotte. In eight games this month, he is averaging just 10.5 points and shooting 39.7 percent while logging nearly 31 minutes.

"We've been winning, so it doesn't bother me," said Lewis, whose team is 7-1 in March.

But Lewis and the Magic know that that pattern -- his personal underachievement while the team succeeds -- isn't likely to hold up in the playoffs. Orlando isn't paying him $18 million this season (more than Howard or Carter are making) to disappear.

The best way for Orlando to exploit KevinGarnett's troublesome wheels is to force him to race out and defend Lewis' three-pointers from the corner -- his primary shooting zone this season now that Magic opponents have worked hard to take away the high pick-and-roll between Lewis and Howard on the wing. The Cavs didn't go out at the trade deadline and acquire their own stretch four, Antawn Jamison, to match up with Carter. And, if the Magic get that far, Lewis' length and long-range accuracy are the best rebuttal to the Lakers' league-leading defense in three-point percentage.

Count on it: At some point during this postseason, the ball will be swung to Lewis out beyond the arc with the game on the line. Then we'll know a little bit more about the legacy of Big Shot 'Shard.

• After Boston's relentlessly inevitable loss to the Cavs on Sunday, people are trying to figure out how firmly to push the panic button on the Celtics. Given a realistic appraisal of the team's injuries, age and current performance, Boston's best hope for the postseason is a huge upgrade from Paul Pierce to near-vintage level. Garnett's chronic physical woes leave him bereft of another gear, Ray Allen has already raised his game since the All-Star break, and recent acquisitions Nate Robinson and Michael Finley are more Stephon Marbury than P.J. Brown when it comes to veteran rescues among the supporting cast.

Pierce has been besieged by injuries, including a sore knee that has had to be drained, a sprained foot and, most recently, a sprained thumb. He's registered one double-double the entire season -- opening night against the Cavs, his lone game with 10 or more rebounds -- and hasn't topped five assists or 30 points since January.

But he remains the best potential antidote for the offensive anemia that is slowly sapping the Celts (their scoreless first five minutes of Sunday's fourth quarter being the most recent example). Boston remains the league's top team in defensive efficiency, but is only 15th in offensive efficiency. That might change if Pierce heals enough to reclaim his alpha status in the half-court offense. Even with all of his adversity this season, his true shooting percentage of 61.2 (which factors in the value of three-pointers and free throws) is a career high, boosted by his personal-best 44 percent from three-point range. The problem is that Pierce is averaging just 11.8 shots per game, a career low. With its slow pace of play (22nd in the NBA), Boston can and should run more sets to free up Pierce -- more picks and fewer threes from Rasheed Wallace would help.

As for the panic button, fourth-seeded Boston is just five games ahead of Milwaukee in the loss column with 16 games left (the Bucks have 17). Their comparative strength of schedules for the first dozen of those games favors Milwaukee, setting up a potential showdown for home-court advantage when the two teams meet twice over the final three games of the season. (The third-seeded Hawks, meanwhile, are only a half-game in front of Boston.)

Before we move on to the Bucks, a moment of appreciation for Rajon Rondo. A year ago at this time, Rondo was regarded as the fourth-best player on his team. Today he leads the NBA in steals, is tied for second in total assists, ranks 18th in minutes played and stands 21st in field-goal percentage (although much lower in true shooting because of his inaccuracy from three-point range). Everyone knows Rondo is a top-tier defender, but this year he has also become an elite playmaker, assisting on 43.8 percent of his team's baskets when he is in the game, a standard exceeded only by Steve Nash (50.9 percent), Chris Paul (48.2) and Deron Williams (43.9).

• In Milwaukee, Scott Skiles is giving Oklahoma City's Scott Brooks some stiff competition down the stretch for Coach of the Year honors. Like the Thunder, the Bucks have taken a quantum leap forward this season because of a vastly improved defense. Gone are offensive-oriented marquee names like Richard Jeffeson (traded), Michael Redd (injured) and Charlie Villaneuva and Ramon Sessions (allowed to depart via free agency). In their place are steadfast role-playing defenders such as Ersan Ilyasova and Carlos Delfino, who, along with rookie Brandon Jennings and rejuvenated center Andrew Bogut, have shaved 4.2 points per game off their opponents' scoring while playing at almost exactly the same pace as a year ago.

Although Bogut and Ilyasova are high-caliber defenders (the Utah television announcers perceptively dubbed Ilyasova as "their Kirilenko" on a broadcast last week), Milwaukee's defense exceeds the sum of its individual talents as much or more than any team's. That's because of the trust and dedication Skiles has fostered in team defense, a hallmark of his early success guiding other franchises before his intensity wore down his players. Now that in-season pickups John Salmons and Jerry Stackhouse have provided some outside shooting to abet spacing for Bogut down low and drive-and-kick options for Jennings, the Bucks have won 12 of their past 13, and "Fear The Deer" signs in the stands at the Bradley Center have become one of the season's more endearing catch phrases.

• Here's a little snapshot on the price of dysfunction: In 49 games with the Wizards, center Brendan Haywood totaled 18 assists and 67 turnovers in 1,614 minutes. In 13 games since a February trade brought him to the Mavs, he has 16 assists and just 11 turnovers in 372 minutes. That's the difference between having your offense run by Gilbert Arenas (with whom Haywood feuded in Washington) or by Jason Kidd.

• According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the top nine teams in limiting points in the paint are all in the Eastern Conference. (In order, Orlando, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Miami, Detroit, Boston, Indiana, Charlotte and Chicago.) Is this because there are fewer potent low-post offenses in the East? Or because the East's longstanding reputation for being the more rugged and physical conference is accurate? Or simply because the pace of play is generally much slower in the East, leading to fewer points overall? Or because some teams are so porous from the perimeter (such as Indiana and Detroit) that their opponents would rather launch three-pointers instead of bothering to try and score in the paint? Probably some of all of the above. But it is still pretty quirky.

• While there is now much less drama about which teams will qualify for the playoffs than there was at the All-Star break, there are fewer and thus more realistic matchup scenarios to anticipate. For example, the Thunder really want to draw Utah in the first round, having swept their three games against the Jazz this season while losing all three to the Lakers and dropping two of three to both the Nuggets and Mavs. Meanwhile, it is striking how many teams in the West are taking perhaps their last stab at a title with the core players on their rosters. Between age, the salary cap and free agency, Utah, San Antonio, Dallas and Phoenix are all in their "last hurrah" stage with their current configuration of players.

• Along those lines, when the upcoming crop of dazzling free agents is mentioned, why doesn't Manu Ginobili get more pub? Sure, Ginobili is 32, chronically injured and perhaps disinclined to leave behind the great legacy he's established in San Antonio. But for teams wanting or needing to win immediately next year, one of the game's shrewdest, grittiest and most successful clutch performers might be worth the money.