LeBron James of the Cavaliers, left, has been forced to become an offensive soloist against the Magic. (John Raoux/Associated Press)
Flip Saunders said it over and over: Playoff series come down, more often than not, to matchups.
The conference finals are living proof. The quickness and athleticism of the Denver Nuggets is making the Los Angeles Lakers look old and tired. And the perimeter length and skill of the Orlando Magic, coupled with a dominant center in Dwight Howard, is making the Cleveland Cavaliers look fractured and lost. That's one thing the league's marketing department probably overlooked in their haste to promote a Kobe Bryant vs. LeBron James final. Basketball is a team game, and sometimes the best individual player or players can be trumped by a better team.
That's why they play
No question on paper Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom should have an advantage over Nene, Kenyon Martin and Chris Andersen. But so far, Nene, Martin and Andersen are beating the Lakers to every rebound and loose ball. They are also swarming and clogging up the Lakers' offense, forcing Bryant to work like a dog for his offense.
The Lakers are being criticized for not playing with the same level of hunger or desire as the Nuggets, but that's not it. When you play against a team that's quicker and more athletic, it makes you look lethargic. But it's a physical thing, not mental.
The Nuggets are also wearing Bryant out on defense. Bryant wants to guard the Nuggets' best scorer. Thus, he's taken on Chauncey Billups, Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith. Is it any wonder he has to have IVs after every game?
Play gives Cavs fits
The Magic completely have discombobulated the Cavaliers, running basically one play -- the high pick-and-roll. Here's the problem for the Cavaliers: Along with Howard, the Magic deploy Rashard Lewis (6-foot-10) and Hedo Turkoglu (6-10) up front, along with a pair of penetrating guards in Rafer Alston and Courtney Lee. Those guys can all beat you off the dribble and they can all beat you from the perimeter.
The only way to counter is to play Howard straight up, and have enough length and quickness on the perimeter to stay in front of Lewis and Turkoglu.
But the Cavaliers haven't been able to contain any part of it. Because Zydrunas Ilgauskas is too slow to stay with Howard, the Cavaliers have had to send help. Usually that's James, who leaves his man and sends Cleveland into full rotation.
Either Anderson Varejao or Ben Wallace gets stuck on Lewis -- mismatch. Or, on the other side, Delonte West gets stuck guarding Turkoglu. Even though West is a bulldog and has fought him hard, that's a gross mismatch.
On the other end of the floor, the Magic's perimeter length and the interior presence of Howard has stymied the Cavaliers' secondary scorers, forcing James to be an offensive soloist -- which, as great as he's been, isn't the way to win this deep into the playoffs.
Don't be hasty
All that said, do not bury the Cavaliers or Lakers just yet.
As good as they played the first two games in Cleveland, I can't see Orlando closing this out at Quicken Loans Arena. The Magic are going to have to end it back at Amway in Game 6 or they are going to be the first team to blow 3-1 leads twice in seven seasons (the Pistons did it to them in 2003).
As for the Lakers, you still have to like their chances, with the series tied 2-2 (before Wednesday) and two of the three games at Staples. But these have been two compelling series. Wouldn't mind if both went seven games.
By the numbers
20 Postseason games this year decided by three points or fewer (NBA record).
43 Percent of the Cavaliers' offense provided by LeBron James against the Magic.
182-8 Record of teams that build a 3-1 lead in best-of-seven series.
A look at the 1-1 and 2-2 matchups in NBA Finals history. This year, the Cavaliers and Lakers are 1 seeds and the Magic and Nuggets are 2 seeds:
1 vs. 1
|2008||Boston d. L.A. Lakers||1974||Boston d. Milwaukee|
|2000||L.A. Lakers d. Indiana||1967||Philadelphia d. San Francisco|
|1998||Chicago d. Utah||1965||Boston d. Los Angeles|
|1997||Chicago d. Utah||1964||Boston d. San Francisco|
|1996||Chicago d. Seattle||1963||Boston d. Los Angeles|
|1992||Chicago d. Portland||1962||Boston d. Los Angeles|
|1989||Detroit d. L.A. Lakers||1961||Boston d. St. Louis|
|1987||L.A. Lakers d. Boston||1960||Boston d. St. Louis|
|1985||L.A. Lakers d. Boston||1958||Boston d. St. Louis|
|1984||Boston d. L.A. Lakers||1956||Philadelphia d. Fort Wayne|
|1983||Philadelphia d. L.A. Lakers||1955||Syracuse d. Fort Wayne|
|1979||Seattle d. Washington||1953||Minneapolis d. New York|
2 vs. 2
|2006||Miami d. Dallas||1994||Houston d. New York|
|2005||San Antonio d. Detroit||1973||New York d. Los Angeles|
|2004||Detroit d. L.A. Lakers||1968||Boston d. Los Angeles|
Where's the 'D'?
The Cavaliers, one of the stingiest defensive teams all season, have had no answer against the Magic. Their scoring defense through three rounds: