As the first half winds down, we were treated to the two best teams in the NBA matching up in Cleveland last night. Here are some observations from the game:
-This has been true for a while now but LeBron James is clearly the best player in the NBA (and probably the world). Despite some early shooting issues, he controlled this game on all levels and then killed the Magic in the last few minutes off the dribble or the pass. LBJ’s numbers are basically in line with 2007-08 and 2008-09 so far. The one difference is that James has steadily been raising his rate of three point shots and accuracy over the last three years too. James’ current effective FG% is .553%, which would be a career best. He is also shooting threes at a career best rate (.362%). The scary thing is that James could plausibly raise his three-point percentage.
-Despite the fact that the final score indicated that Orlando was manhandled, they were pretty competitive. Most impressive here was the Magic’s ability to comeback from way down to take a lead briefly with about six minutes to go. Orlando got that lead by going to Dwight Howard continuously and letting him score or kick it out to Rashard Lewis from three (a common theme from last year’s playoffs). Had Vince Carter or Jameer Nelson even had decent games, Orlando could’ve won. Indeed, there is no reason to think that Cleveland would blow out Orlando in a seven-game series this spring.
-Shaquille O’Neal was very effective in making Howard work in the fourth quarter. Shaq could score on Howard, when Shaq got his body moving (in the post, Shaq looked a little uglier and awkward). Also, Howard could not push him around on defense. The Magic, for some reason, did not use Shaq’s presence to run a pick-and-rolls with Howard and Nelson to force O’Neal play defense away from the basket. Shaq is very slow now and Orlando could’ve taken more advantage of that fact. Shaq’s problems are quite clear on a per-minute basis, where his foul numbers are the highest of his career (4.8 fouls per 36 minutes). From Cleveland’s viewpoint, this isn’t a big deal. Shaq is no longer a star but just part of an effective three-headed center with Zydrunas Ilgauskas and J.J. Hickson.
-Speaking of center match ups, it’s hard not to notice that Orlando kind of has the micro version of Cleveland’s centers. Howard plays like Shaq but is a good deal smaller and Marcin Gortat, the bald European, plays and looks like a smaller version of Ilgauskas. Not sure what that means but it is amusing to me.
-Does a trade make sense for either of these teams? Cleveland could use another scoring forward but I would not trade Hickson to get this done, for the names that have been mentioned (Antawn Jamison or Amare Stoudemire). Hickson is very active on offense and defense and provides the energy for the small ball line up that the Shaq/Z plodding group cannot. Orlando could use scoring even more than Cleveland. Their offense is 12th in efficiency. This is only slightly worse than last year but another option here would help, particularly when the starting guards struggled. They can still win with the current lineup but using some of the excess big men (Gortat or Brandon Bass) for another scorer (Caron Butler?) could make a big difference.