June 28, 2016


LeBron makes his own magic

Rick Noland

The Gazette

CLEVELAND – The ball is now in the Orlando Magic’s court.

Actually, it’s in the hands of LeBron James at the top of the key, with the Cavaliers small forward having yet to use his dribble, but for the first time in the Eastern Conference finals, it is Or-lando that now faces a major adjustment.

If Magic coach Stan Van Gundy doesn’t come up with a way to slow down James in Game 6 tonight at Amway Arena, the series could be coming back to Cleveland for Game 7 on Monday.

“It is just too easy for him right now,” Orlando center Dwight Howard said. “He’s catching it in his sweet spot and it’s one dribble to the basket. We’ve got to make it a little tougher on him.”

James, who is averaging 41.2 points, 8.6 rebounds and 8.2 assists in the series, had 37 points, 14 rebounds and 12 assists in Cleveland’s 112-102 win in Game 5. The last player to put up at least those numbers in a playoff game was Oscar Robertson in 1963 (41-15-12).

The league MVP did much of his damage in the fourth quarter, when he had 17 points, four boards and four assists. James scored or assisted on the Cavaliers’ first 29 points of the period. Going back to the end of the third quarter, he had a hand in 32 consecutive Cleveland points.

The 24-year-old did almost all his damage after receiving the ball near the top of the key, which al-lowed him to make jumpers, drive or, if Orlando tried to double-team, pass to team-mates for wide-open looks.

“The game is basically all LeBron, all the time,” Van Gundy said. “It is a difficult area to double-team him in. It’s a difficult part of the floor because of his shooters and his passing.

“You play him one-on-one and it is real tough. He makes shots. If he gets into the paint, it’s automatically a foul. It becomes very, very difficult.”

It will remain difficult as long as Mo Williams and Daniel “Boobie” Gibson, who were a combined 9-of-13 from behind the 3-point arc in Game 5, continue to make shots.

“That’s something that as a unit, players and coaches, we came up with trying to exploit their defense with all our shooters out there,” James said.

“Having a live dribble ei-ther at the top of the key or the free throw line is key for me and our team. It adds a threat of me jabbing, jabbing, taking a shot or getting to the paint and either taking a shot or creating for my teammates. Any time you are as dangerous as I am, or the best guys in this league, it makes you that much more dangerous because they don’t know what you are going to do.”

The Cavaliers have used that offensive set before, but they went to it extensively down the stretch of Game 5.

Once James gets the ball, the play calls for two Cleve-land 3-point shooters, in this case Williams and Gibson, to go to opposite corners. Two big men, usually Anderson Varejao and Zydrunas Ilgauskas, station themselves near the base-line, a few feet outside the lane.

With James in the old-school, triple-threat position – shoot, drive or pass – it becomes extremely hard to double-team him.

Send a guard at him and the 6-foot-8, 250-pounder simply passes over the top to that person’s man, as he did in finding Gibson for two 3-pointers and Williams for one in the fourth quar-ter. Try to send a big man and he hits a cutter, which is what happened when Varejao converted a three-point play.

Play him straight up, which is what Orlando attempted to do for long stretches with 6-6, 215-pound Mickael Pietrus, and James shoots a jumper, drives to the hole or draws fouls.

“We didn’t do anything tricky,” Brown said. “We just gave him the ball right there at what we call ‘The Nail’ and said, ‘Get us some good looks, Big Fella.’

“We just felt that would be open with the way they were trying to double-team LeBron. It gave him an opportunity to make plays minus the double-team. If they chose to double, then he was going to pass the ball. We just had to have guys on the perimeter make wide-open shots.”

There is no easy way for Orlando to counter the play. The Magic can try to deny James the ball, but he’s just too big, fast and strong. The best Orlando can really hope for in that regard is to force James to catch the ball a few feet beyond the 3-point arc, so at least he has to dribble in order to get into serious attack position.

The Magic can also hope Williams, who was 6-of-27 on 3-pointers through the first four games of the series, and Gibson, who was a complete non-factor in Games 1, 2 and 3, don’t continue to make shots.

In addition, Orlando has Defensive Player of the Year Howard to protect the inte-rior and contest shots, but relying on him too much runs the risk of serious foul trouble. Howard, who has fouled out three times and has been whistled 27 times overall in the series, picked up his fifth personal in Game 5 on a James drive midway through the fourth quarter and his sixth with 2:22 to go.

Both resulted in three-point plays for James, who found a way to get his body into Howard’s before the 6-11, 265-pounder could get into good position to block or alter his shot.

“If you allow a guy like that to get space, he is able to jump and create and block shots,” James said. “That’s how he gets a lot of his weak-side blocks, com-ing across and blocking shots. If you don’t give him much space, if you hit him, make contact with him, it’s tough for a guy like that to get off the court.”

In his press conference after Game 5, Van Gundy had already started com-plaining about James, who was 15-of-19 at the line, getting all the calls. It’s a ploy used by almost every coach in every playoff series, but the Cavaliers will continue to ride James in Game 6.

“That’s what great players do,” Brown said. “Great players put the team on their back and everybody steps up.

“He’s showing confidence in his teammates. He’s encouraging them. He’s talking strategy offensively. He’s talking strategy defensively. Just his mental awareness, whether it’s on the floor during the game or in the huddle, is off the charts. We have to continue to have that from him.”

Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or rickn@ohio.net.

Rick Noland About Rick Noland

Rick Noland is the Cavs beat writer for The Gazette and the author of "Over Time," a compilation of stories he's written in more than 30 years as a journalist. He can be reached at 330-721-4061 or rnoland@medina-gazette.com. Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.