1. Sunday Dime Chat
2. Can Reloaded Cavs Handle Magic In Playoffs?
Sunday's matchup between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Orlando Magic could be a prelude to an Eastern Conference finals re-match. The Cavs and the Magic are two teams that have much in common; in fact, in some ways they are mirror images of each other. Both teams are led by some of the brightest young stars in the league. Both teams average just over 102 points per game but can lock opponents down on D. And both are clearly the best the East has to offer, so look for these two teams to meet again come late May.
However, both have their share of question marks, too -- the biggest being whether the Cavs have made the adjustments in personnel and/or strategy to knock off the Magic.
Lets take a look at some key issues likely to come into play if these two teams meet in the playoffs:
1. The Cavaliers had no one last season that could guard Dwight Howard and were forced to play him in various ways. They played him straight-up, they doubled him on the pass and on the dribble. But every way they attempted to defend him failed.
In the offseason, the Cavs acquired Shaquille O'Neal from Phoenix. Although O'Neal will be out of the lineup for Sunday's game, one could make the assumption that his acquisition was made solely to help the Cavaliers defeat the Magic in a seven-game playoff. With O'Neal in the Cavaliers' lineup there has been no doubling of the post, just old-fashioned one-on-one basketball.
NBA on ABC
Sunday, April 1
Magic-Cavs, 1 ET
Blazers-Lakers, 3:30 ET
Shaq is one of the only people big enough and strong enough to neutralize Dwight Howard's height and strength in the low post. O'Neal has also provided the Cavaliers with something they did not have last year: a center that can defend the post, plug up the middle and shut down the paint defensively. O'Neal should be back in the lineup in the next few weeks. If he is healthy and the Cavs and Magic advance to play each other, watch this extremely important matchup. If O'Neal is able to contain and neutralize Howard, the Magic will have a difficult time defeating the Cavs.
2. Although O'Neal matches up well with Howard, the battle between these two players may come down to who can stay on the court the longest. Both cannot stay out of foul trouble, especially when their two teams meet. Despite averaging just 23.3 minutes per game, Shaq has averaged a foul every 4.6 minutes on the court, while Howard averages 4.7 fouls per game in 35.6 mpg.
The difference between these two teams lies in the fact that the Cavs can win without Shaq; the same can't be said for Howard and the Magic. Cleveland can play Zydrunas Ilgauskas, or go smaller with Anderson Varejao. I don't think the Magic can realistically compete with the Cavs if Howard has to hit the bench often because of foul problems, especially late in the fourth quarter.
3. The Magic have had no answer this season for LeBron James, who has lit them up for 33.6 points in three games. He can take a game over at any point and can single-handedly beat an opponent. His one-on-one abilities and ability to attack the basket at will are invaluable come playoff time.
In the playoffs, where there are no bad defensive teams, it is necessary to have players who can create shots for themselves early or late in the shot clock. The Cavs obviously have that in James, but the Magic may have lost theirs in the offseason. Hedo Turkoglu was Orlando's one-on-one, pick-and-roll guy, but they essentially replaced him with Vince Carter. Carter has been spectacular at times during his career, but for the Magic to win early-round playoff games and advance to the Eastern Conference finals, they will need a lot more scoring and consistency out of Carter than what he has provided so far this season.
Although he's played well recently, Vince is averaging just 16.5 ppg (down from a 22.9 career mark), and his shooting percentage has dropped to 42.5 percent. Carter needs to revert back to the younger version and put the Magic on his back, especially late in games. If he can give the Magic a consistent scoring option and a perimeter one-on-one player that they can rely on in big situations, it will enhance Orlando's ability to get to the East finals and possibly knock off the Cavs again.
4. The Cavaliers picked up Antawn Jamison at the trade deadline, and the 11-year vet scored 19 points and grabbed eight rebounds in a loss to the Magic just days later. This was a very important pickup for the Cavs because it gives them a mobile forward who can put points on the board, drive the ball to the rim or stretch the floor and make teams pay if they try to double or help defend LeBron.
Jamison also helps them defensively because he can guard other mobile forwards. If the Cavs and the Magic face each other this year in the playoffs, Jamison will give them a big forward to put up against Rashard Lewis. Lewis is a tough matchup for some teams because he loves to play on the perimeter and is a great 3-point shooter. However, if he has a height mismatch, he can post and create excellent scoring opportunities for himself and others. Pay close attention to Jamison in Sunday's game. He could be a big difference-maker in a seven-game series versus the Magic.
Scouts Inc.'s John Carroll spent nine years as an NBA coach.
3. Lakers Running Out Of Excuses
The Lakers keep pushing back their deadline for when they should be in sync for their playoff run, like a lazy college student making myriad excuses to his professor about why he needs an extension for the due date of his term paper.
They went 0-3 through Miami, Charlotte and Orlando and had an air-it-out meeting and promised to get back on track. And they did, until they went 2-3 on their next big road trip with embarrassing losses to Oklahoma City, New Orleans and Atlanta, and promised to put it together for the stretch run. And they did, against Utah for one measly game, and then dropped their last two against San Antonio and Denver, two teams they'll have to get through in the postseason to get that repeat championship they covet.
And the way you win a championship is to be consistent for 40 days and 40 nights, the NBA's slogan for the two-month slog that is known as the playoffs and Finals. Bryant called the postseason "another process" on Thursday, but a process usually entails a series of steps through which one can only advance by completing the previous one successfully.
Somehow we're supposed to believe that this team is going to escape all the perturbing patterns it's fallen into and suddenly stay consistent enough to win 16 games in four rounds over two months to lift the Larry O'Brien Trophy again?
It's beginning to look like if they haven't done it yet, they're not ever going to do it.
4. Will LeBron Skip Out On Worlds?
Ricardo (Bahia, Brazil): Hi, Mr. Sheridan. How are you? Do you think LeBron is making a smart move skipping out USA team to make a movie? It seems ridiculous to me. Even the free agency situation doesn't sound like a good excuse, because LeBron is not really fighting for a contract (teams will not choose him, he will choose a team). Thanks!
Chris Sheridan: Well, LeBron did hedge a little, and a lot can happen to impact his final decision between now and mid-July. I'd expect LBJ and Jerry Colangelo to speak on the phone soon instead of through the media, because that hasn't made things easier. But I think the bottom line for Colangelo is that he doesn't need to push LeBron just yet, and if he wants to push LeBron by doing it through the Nike folks, Jerry probably prefers to do it that way. What Colangelo has been saying for a year is that all eight core guys gave him verbal commitments, and he's not going to keep checking back to see whether that verbal commitment still stands.
5. Missing The Purpose
Is it possible the Lakers have won too many games for their own good?
They're the only Western Conference playoff team that doesn't have to worry about its seeding. They're comfortably ensconced in the No. 1 spot, a place that officially becomes theirs if they beat the Nuggets tonight in Denver.
Yet their 4½-game cushion in the standings puts them at a competitive disadvantage when they face a team that's still scrambling, such as the Nuggets or the Spurs last weekend or the Trail Blazers this upcoming Sunday.
"It's tough to get to that level of intensity," said Kobe Bryant, holding his hand up to his head. "What you have to do is take care of the ball, execute and play the mental game. Hopefully the level that we're playing at mentally equals the level that they're playing at emotionally."
Derek Fisher threw out the idea that focusing on the big picture leaves the Lakers unable to focus on the little snapshots.
"All season it's been about repeating as champions," Fisher said. "As the season has shortened it doesn't seem like we've kept an ability to find a purpose for today, to play a certain way.
"At times the natural adrenaline that comes from playing in big games -- the passion and certain things that just sort of come naturally -- hasn't been there for us."
For all of their issues, there are seven teams right below them that would gladly trade places. But the Lakers aren't the type to hang divisional or conference championship banners.
"We didn't accomplish jack," Bryant said. "I don't care about that at all. We were expected to win the West; I expected us to win the West. I expected us to have the best record in the league, and we haven't. [Cleveland does.] From that standpoint it's been disappointing so far."
6. Blazing To The Finish
7. Sunday Magic
8. Dwight's D Still Top-Notch
I was down on Dwight Howard earlier this season, as I didn't think he was moving particularly well in the first half of the season. All that has changed since about Christmas, however, and Howard is back to his dominating ways. So are the Magic, who rank a close second to Charlotte in defensive efficiency despite a roster laden mostly with offensive players.
The reason, of course, is Howard, who patrols the middle with his breathtaking shot-blocking ability, dominates the defensive glass, helps his guards on the perimeter and nullifies opposing breaks with his speed back down the court. It would be nice if he'd block a few more shots to his teammates rather than going for volleyball spikes into the 10th row, but as long as we're comparing him to current players rather than Bill Russell, Howard is easily the cream of the crop.