Usually, out of superstition, I try and keep my personal fandom on the sidelines whilst "writing" for this "website". However, when one of my favorite teams (in my favorite sport, no less) reaches the highest point in a strange and eventful franchise history (technically, the highest point is probably their biggest lead against Houston in Game 1 of the 94 Finals. But I try not to talk about the 94 Finals) I say fuck what's interesting to other people and write about what I like.
I'm speaking, of course, of the Orlando Magic and their recent victory over the heavily favored Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals. How unlikely was this considered by most? Even thoughtful fans like Jerry told me I was better off doing drugs than investing any sort of time and/or emotion in the Eastern Conference Finals. And you know what? I agreed with him. I didn't think this team would be able to overcome their injuries, imperfections or lack of national interest and be able to triumph over the team with the NBA's best regular season record, MVP and Coach of the Year. (Read that last sentence again.)
So, now that we're staring right at a Lakers-Magic Finals that has the potential to be much, much more entertaining than the Lakers-Cavs series (Aside from LeBron-Kobe, name me one other intriguing matchup in that series...Odom-Varejao? Williams-Fisher?) everyone thought we'd see, the question that begs to be answered is...
How'd We Get Here
The Emergence(s): Their were three key guys who emerged and took their game to new levels during this postseason for Orlando. Each in different ways and each equally as important. That's one of the interesting things about this Magic team. Nearly every piece is vitally important to the whole. Except for JJ Redick, that guy blows.
(1)Rashard Lewis: He established himself as a 4th quarter assassin who could knock down series altering shots when called upon. There's not much better than that in the Playoffs. For a player who literally ran away from the ball multiple times during the 4th quarter of Game 5 of the Celtics series, this is quite a development. He wanted the ball in big spots and came through nearly every time his number was called in this series (aside from Game 5). Lewis probably still isn't a max player and still doesn't take the ball to the rack enough for my taste but the man has proven himself numerous times in these playoffs, so I'm willing to admit he's earned his money.
(2) Mickael Pietrus: The Magic's best bench player in the Playoffs somehow followed a positively disastrous regular season (marked by injuries and inconsistency) up with a postseason in which he became the closest thing to James Posey since...James Posey. Pietrus played great active, physical defense (without fouling a ton or making stupid mistakes, which had been his m.o. defensively) and hit more timely 3s than anybody not named Rashard Lewis. I'll admit it, I was wrong. I didn't love the Pietrus signing. I hated his style of play all regular season and didn't even consider him a possible Playoff X-factor (primarily because he couldn't stay on the floor defensively). Obviously, I was wrong and I'm stupid.
(3) Dwight Howard: Obviously, Dwight dropping 40 in a Conference Final clincher is huge. However, I think Howard's emergence as a leader on this team has been the biggest difference in him during this postseason. As much as the Jameer Nelson injury seemed to spell doom for this Magic team, it may turn out that Nelson's injury was the best thing that could have ever happened to this franchise, as well as Howard's career. See...Nelson was the unquestioned leader of this team. It came natural to him. He's a point guard, he's vocal and he's been through his share of adversity. He organized team retreats each of the last 3 offseasons where he would bring all the guys up to his place near Philly and they'd workout, eat and hangout together, and he'd pay for it all. However, with Jameer injured he couldn't be the leader in the locker room in the same way. There was a void and, it seemed, nobody to fill it. Hedo's a goofball and Rashard Lewis is such a quiet guy that its not really in his nature to be that vocal leader. At some point, Howard decided he needed to fill that void. He demanded the ball, he sent inspirational text messages to his teammates, he started speaking out in the locker room. It's not that Howard changed who he was, he just changed the way he went about things and, ultimately, he became the leader of this team.
Not many people talked about the Magic's collective heart going into these Playoffs. It wasn't much of a surprise. Teams that make their living by shooting 3s and running aren't generally regarded as the toughest teams mentally or physically (And teams that employ guys like Tyronn Lue and JJ Redick usually suck too). However, if you were paying attention you could see that the mental makeup of this team was much stronger than it appeared on paper. When their leader and All-Star PG went down most people wrote them off. But they made a terrific trade (Are we sure Otis Smith isn't a much, much better GM than Joe Dumars?), quickly integrated a very different style of PG and barely missed a beat. When they blew a big lead in Game 1 against Philly and lost on a shot that I'll give Andre Iguodala all day, most folks wrote them off. Then, when Howard was suspended for Game 6 of the Philly series everybody thought they were done. What did they do? They went into Philly and blew the Sixers out. I could go through a bunch of different scenarios in the Boston series that resulted in the Magic being written off (Going into the series, Howard's press conference, Big Baby's buzzer beater, Game 7 in Boston) but we all know that the Magic found a way to win that series too. Maybe, it wasn't about the other teams all along as much as it was about the Magic's refusal to quit or stop playing their style or belief in one another. Many people have been wrong about this Magic team (myself included) but nobody's ever been more wrong than those who questioned this team's heart and chemistry.
A Few Words on LeBron
First let me start off by saying that I think LeBron is the best player in the NBA. However, I do not think he is the most skilled player in the NBA. His footwork is still very average, he has little to no post moves and his jumpshot is exceedingly average. However, he's absolutely fantastic at what he does and, once his skills catch up to his body and athleticism, will absolutely revolutionize the way we think about and watch the NBA. Now, with that said:
- Defense: LeBron finished second in the Defensive POY voting primarily because of his awe inspiring weakside blocks and anticipation in the passing lanes. That, my friends, is a very small part of defense. LeBron started out the series on Rafer Alston in order to allow him to play the free safety type role in which he excels. However, he too often left Rafer wide open and ended not only giving up jumpshots but also drives to the rim. Furthermore, when Mike Brown finally did decide to put LeBron on either Turkoglu or Lewis there was no real difference in their production level over the course of a game. Maybe this is a product of LeBron having to do so much that the Cavs end up switching him to some easy matchups from time to time in order to rest. There's nothing wrong with that. It does kind of preclude him from the defensive stopper category, though. Shane Battier is a great defensive player, guys like LeBron and Dwyane Wade who make their living by gambling on D are not great defensive players. They too often end up out of position and therefore put their teammates in bad situations. The Magic made LeBron and the Cavs pay for a lot of those gambles.
- Shooting: I've covered this before but LeBron is not a great shooter. His mechanics are bad, he's terribly inconsistent from night to night and he settles for waaay too many long contested 2s. As a Magic fan, every time he took a jumpshot I was happy. It's simply playing the percentages. Go back and take a look at Game 6 (a game where Delonte West and Mo Williams played pretty well by the way), LeBron came out and hit 3 or 4 early jumpers. In my mind, that was the best thing that could happen. Because, unless he's in the zone all night he's going to begin thinking he can hit his jumper consistently and he's going to start settling for it. That's exactly what happened. LeBron's lowest scoring night of the series was the one where he took the most jumpers.
- Style of Play: It might be time to consider this: LeBron's style of play at this point in his career almost forces his teams to play the style of offense that the Cavs and Mike Brown are currently being excoriated for. LeBron both wants and needs the ball in his hands to be successful. And, since he's not a great shooter, teams are going to sag on him a bit in order to prevent the drive. As a result of this, LeBron can't play with guards who aren't good shooters because defenses will sag off of them also (see: Hughes, Larry) and force those guards to hoist jumpers. On top of that, because LeBron is most effective when initiating the offense, the other perimeter players around him are naturally going to spend a good chunk of their time sitting around the three point line. Unless you are a pure shooter like a Wally Sczerbiak (in his prime) or Steve Kerr, its tough to establish much of a rhythm like this. Furthermore, because LeBron doesn't have much post game you can't consistently run your offense through him in the post. The end result is that in order to have the ball in LeBron's hands as much as he wants (and as much as your team needs) you're going to have to let him handle it up top and make decisions. Is this they best way to run an NBA offense? Of course not (Not unless you want to just go ahead and make LeBron your PG). Do the Cavs (or any other team until LeBron diversifies his ways of scoring) have many other viable options? Not that I can see. (For example: Could you run LeBron off a series of baseline screens ala Ray Allen or Rip Hamilton? Maybe, but do you trust him to properly read these screens or to come off these screens and fire up catch-and-shoot jumpers 12-15 times a night when the defense plays it right?)
One last thing: What Happened to Contrary Jerry?
When I first invited myself into this crowd via the blogosphere, Jerry was the intelligent contrarian. He would say things like Peyton Manning wasn't really bad in big games like his reputation suggested, and then he'd back it up with the numbers to prove it. Now, he's writing things like, "I really don't think you can overstate how good LeBron James is right now".