Too many thoughts, not enough time to organise them…
I wrote this paragraph after the Magic won Game 3 two days ago (honest, I swear):
For years now I’ve been hearing the same phrase, right up until barely a few months ago when Houston were mounting a playoff run. “You’ll never win an NBA championship with Rafer Alston as your point guard”, no doubt a knock at his AND1 street-ball origins. It’s not like Rafter helped his cause on the court – he has simply been an average-at-best point guard in his NBA career so far. The trade which brought him to Orlando seemed like more of a band aid fix than anything; a desperate attempt to snare an NBA starting point guard capable of orchestrating a talented offense, but not too capable as to demand a lot of the ball and disturb the existing team dynamic. Rafer’s indispensibleness was proved when the Rockets were willing to let him go for Brian Cook, Adonal Foyle and Mike Wilks (who?). Now he’s leading a team that could very easily find itself in the 2009 NBA Finals. There are plenty more interesting and important sub-plots and story lines in this series, but don’t let the resurgence of Rafer go unnoticed. As he proved today, he’s more than just an orchestrator. He didn’t just fill the Jameer Nelson void for Orlando – he’s lead them to the Conference Finals, and maybe, beyond.
And if you thought Alston was impressive in Game 3, he went one better today. Aside from a burst by Dwight Howard in OT, you can pretty call Rafer the star of Game 4: 26 points on 10/16 shooting including six threes? Jameer who?
Mo Williams is kind of a dick. The way he’s disrespected the Magic and guaranteed wins, it would almost fool you into thinking Mo is like… a great player. He’s not. He fell into the All-Star game, and he’s made to look ten times better than he is because he’s sharing the court with Lebron James. When Rasheed Wallace started arcing up during the Cavs series in ‘06 saying “there’s no way we lose to these cats”, making Guaransheeds and other various stupid claims, you can at least understand where it comes from. It’s Sheed, first of all, and second of all the guy is wearing a championship ring on his finger and has battled through May and June several times in his career. That doesn’t make it right and it still comes off looking childish and arrogant at times, but at least it appears a little more theatrical and even believable. When Mo Williams says these things on the other hand he looks completely out of place, made worse by the fact he’s playing terrible. How terrible? Out of the ten guys who have suited up for Cleveland in this series, Mo’s FG% ranks 9th, only topped by Wally Sczerbiak who in his defense, has only taken 12 shots. In other words, fucking terrible.
Talking to one of my mates after today’s game, we brought up how Lebron is having to carry a 150% load, and that one man can never defeat a better team, and that Orlando would probably prevail for that very reason. “I think we’re forgetting something” I said. “Cleveland is supposed to be the better team!”. This isn’t Kobe Bryant in 2006, a one-man juggernaut trying to overcome a clearly superior opponent who won 20 more regular season games than them (although it does feel like it, hey?) This is the best most winningest team in the East reduced to rabble, looking more like the hopelessly Lebron-dependent Cavs of 2007 (swept in the Finals) than the new and improved MVP-lead Cleveland team that won 66 games. How does this happen? I’ll tell you how it happens. Not because the Cleveland Cavaliers fluked their way through the regular season – they really were the best team in the league. But because this team is like a pencil standing on its end; it looks so majestic when its perfectly balanced, but in reality it’s hopelessly fragile and any slight disturbance will send it crashing. That disturbance has been severe match up problems: lack of size and athleticism against Dwight, lack of versatility to guard Rashard Lewis at the 4, and only one man capable of guarding Hedo (which is Lebron). To prove this is a match up problem and not just Orlando’s unstoppableness (been using that word a lot since this), here is how those match ups would work for Denver/LA:
Against Dwight: Nene and Birdman / Gasol and Bynum. Both those look a lot better than Ilgausaks / your dad
Against Lewis: K-Mart (almost perfect defender) and Melo (little undersized but capable) / Odom (again, almost perfect for Lewis) and Gasol (great lateral mover, can guard quicker forwards)
Against Hedo: Melo (an improved defender, quicker and stronger than Hedo) / Ariza (will give him hell)
Both Denver and LA can shuffle pieces and have options when it comes to defending those guys, notably athletic versatile players who can guard the 3 and 4 positions. When the Magic want to space the floor, both Denver and LA have respectable defenders to go against Dwight one-on-one. Cleveland on the other hand is hopelessly short on options. The one legit seven-footer they have is 48 years old, their starting 4-man (Varejao) is completely ineffective and clueless when guarding roaming forwards, and their two-guards (West, Wally, Pavlovic) are too small to slide up to the three to help Lebron. They have come up against a team that presents true match up problems, beyond what the game-to-game adjustments of playoffs basketball can solve. Unless Mike Brown has found a time machine for Ben Wallace or managed to implant a brain into Anderson Varejao, there’s nothing he can really do. The Cavs are too inflexible, and they know it.
Remember that thing I said about adveristy? Adversity is NOT playing a close game with the Atlanta Hawks that you end up winning by 15 points and going up 3-0 in the series, despite what Lebron James thinks. Adversity IS being down 3-1 against the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals. You finally have your adversity Cleveland. Let’s see how you deal with it.
Random side note: what would Kobe think of all this? I’ll tell you what Kobe thinks, he will be damn upset about the prospect of getting to the Finals and not having Lebron James line up against him. Why? Because Kobe knows that as his career winds down, the only true way to get the upper hand in the Kobe-Lebron debates that will haunt them both forever is to defeat him mano-e-mano in the Finals. What’s more, Kobe knows his team is so well-equipped to do it RIGHT NOW. Of course, above all else Kobe only cares about winning the championship, but you can’t tell me he hadn’t envisioned that happening while delivering a blow to his rival’s legacy? That’s two birds with one stone as far as Kobe is concerned.
The other thing that thoroughly fascinates me in this series is the evolution of Dwight Howard. I spoke about my past reservations and the Inner Dwight a week ago when Orlando finished off Boston, and I continue to be, well… shocked. I think everyone needs to take a minute to appreciate what Dwight is doing right now. What Dwight is doing, is proving he’s a fearless winner. Not just some fun-loving kid who does dance-offs with Shaq and wears Superman capes, but maybe the best player in the NBA. He won the game for Orlando today with a dominant performance in overtime, he has nailed clutch free throw after clutch free throw, he has made game-saving blocks (even if they were called fouls), and he has pushed the MVP to the brink of elimination. These are signs people, that Dwight could be ready to own the league. If Orlando get past Cleveland, I don’t care what happens in the Finals, we will not look at Dwight the same way next season. Don’t take that smiley easy-going facade as an innocent air of complacency. Deep down inside Dwight is hungry, and ready to kill.
This is the part where I don’t make sense. For everything I’ve said so far, I still think Cleveland can win the series. The logic behind it? There really isn’t any. I know Lebron can’t do much more than he’s doing, and I know those match up problems won’t go away. But sometimes I’m just stubborn and the only way I’ll concede defeat or wrongness is to endure it. I’ve built up a certain amount of respect and expectation for a guy as great as Lebron, it’s taken years, and it doesn’t wear off easily. Sometimes your pre-conceived notions about a player and the realms of possibility have been shattered so many times that when they’re confronted by a wall you simply brace yourself and wait for them to crash through. When they do, it only heightens your trust in them. When they don’t, it’s like a girlfriend cheating on you; you never look at them the same way. So I’m forced to put my faith in Lebron. I don’t want to believe he’s cheating on me, I won’t believe it. My brain cannot visualize him walking off the court in Orlando, blue and white streamers falling from the sky, with Stern handing the Conference Trophy over. I just can’t see it, and I won’t believe it until I do.