Cavs/Magic Game 6 Recap
Howard dominates as Magic advance
How good was Dwight Howard in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals? Just ask the people who do Andrew Bynum’s dry-cleaning, because they’re going to find out. If Bynum sat through that game and didn’t feel, shall we say, nervous, then he darn well should have.
Howard finished with 40 points, 14 rebounds, and 4 assists in Orlando’s 103-90 evisceration of Cleveland, but it was his casting shadow and immeasurable presence, one that ended the series and the Cavs’ season in a 48-minute spree, that was the difference. From the moment those critical words (directed at Stan Van Gundy) left his lips in the aftermath of Orlando’s Game 5 loss to Boston in the East Semis 18 days ago, Howard has upped the ante. It culminated Saturday, where he was the best player on the floor.
Make no mistake, Orlando is the better team. Slow learners know that now. They so thoroughly dismantled Cleveland, not just in Game 6, but in five of the six games total, that they deserve to be making the trek west for Thursday’s Finals opener. The Magic’s improbable playoff run of dusting off juggernauts isn’t unlike the 1988 Pistons, who beat Jordan’s Bulls and Bird’s Celtics before advancing to the Finals to play Magic’s Lakers; this Orlando squad beat the defending champs in Boston, the best player in the world (James) and his league-leading Cavs, before arranging a date with Kobe and the Lakers. And to think, Orlando didn’t have homecourt advantage in either of their victorious series’ with heavily-favored opponents, or with this upcoming one. Yeah, the Magic deserve this. And they deserved to end this series at home.
Game 6 may have been close after one period, but it reeked of inevitability. James scored 13 in the opening stanza, with all but one of his field goals coming outside the paint. Unlike prior games, he wasn’t attacking like LeBron; ditto for his own team, but that was exactly like other games. Howard scored 11 seconds in, established the paint as his and his alone, drew two quick fouls on Varejeo, and his team never trailed.
To quote an unknown NBA home video that is lodged in my subconscious, the second quarter was less a contest than a coronation. Orlando, with Rashard Lewis and Howard taking turns landing hay-makers, extended their five-point lead to 18, and she was looking shaky for Cleveland. How shaky? LeBron went scoreless for the quarter, missing three shots from the field and two free throws. Start up the bus.
The second half served as a series snapshot. Cleveland threatened, albeit for fleeting periods, but Orlando’s superiority surfaced when it counted. They tied an NBA record for 3s made in a six-game series, and it could be argued that’s one of the many areas where the series was won; Orlando was potent and dangerous from the perimeter, Cleveland would have found throwing a pebble in a lake to be a difficult task.
Howard was dominant in the truest sense of the word in Game 6, providing an assortment of dunks, lay-ups, and hooks, with the Cavs providing no answer. He shot his usual high percentage – I mean from the floor (14-of-21), not from the line (12-for-16). Four of Orlando’s starters scored in double-figures (Howard, Lewis, Rafer Alston, and Hedo Turkoglu), flexing their pre-eminent depth, and Mickael Pietrus provided what is now routinely expected: Excellent bench play. The Cavs had the better player, Orlando had the better team. It ended at 103-90, and a 4-2 Magic win, but the final margin flattered Cleveland.
As for LeBron, well, what’s left to be said? He had the kind of series (38.5 points, 8.3 rebounds, 8.2 assists) that you build a statue for. But at last check, they don’t build statues for stars whose teams were thoroughly beaten. James was amazing all series; he might want to look for a higher league to play in. But in Game 6, he was worn – those broad shoulders just couldn’t lift his team any longer. Ironically, as much as he’d lifted them in the first place, that still wasn’t enough, his super-human efforts wasted on teammates ill-equipped to deal with the deeper, tougher, more athletic Magic.
James couldn’t turn the corner in Game 6; Magic defenders were loading one side, expecting and waiting for his forceful drives. He practically had a tent set up at the foul line in the prior three games, but on Saturday James got there “just” 11 times, finishing with 25 points. Like the other statistical gods of this sport, MJ (seven years), Wilt (eight) and Oscar (eleven), James’ initial title won’t come early in his career or easily. LeBron’s in a weird spot right now. His historical contemporaries, when facing playoff failures, all went back to the shop, refined and recast, and came back stronger. But when you look at James’ performance in this postseason, you could be forgiven for thinking it’s not him that needs to take a gawk in the mirror – it’s his teammates.
The manner with which the Cavs were beaten almost sours a 66-win season. Zydrunas Ilgauskas is aging, Anderson Varejeo is better suited to reserve/energy duty, and Mo Williams’ bark appears more potent than his bite. That’s not a good thing. Mike Brown was out-coached by Van Gundy, there’s no two ways about it. Yet at the same time, his adjustments (and subsequent re-adjustments) only outlined what we now know when these two teams meet: Frankly, Orlando is better. It’s not inconceivable to think that only one team in the league was better than Cleveland – the one that beat them. Who knows how the Cavs would have fared against Boston or LA, and I guess it doesn’t matter. This loss will humble… and hurt.
With this series, Orlando won over doubters and dethroned yet another more-favored team. Another one is waiting in Los Angeles, on a bigger stage. Are you doubting them?