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I recently revisited Game 1 of the 2009 NBA Eastern Conference Finals between the Magic and Cavs. Cleveland was hot, and maybe even the team to beat coming into the series. Orlando had other intentions, though. My foggy memory was filled with ideas of a three-point shootout, a lot of LeBron isolation, and a big shot from Rashard Lewis. After revisiting, I realized my memory had failed me.
This was an epic showdown between two superstars — Dwight Howard and LeBron James. More than that, though, it was a showdown between two coaches, two benches, and two sets of roll players. The Magic won in all three of those categories, which meant they would win the game too.
No one on the corner has swagger like us
I remember watching every second of this series. In fact, I remember watching every second of the Cavs’ season. The Mo Williams pick up had me hooked from preseason on, and when LeBron and company arrived in the playoffs, I was convinced nothing could stop them. Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals was no exception. In fact, it probably epitomized that untouchable feeling more than any other game. The way the Cavs took the floor against the Magic was daunting. The Cavs were like a fresh rap group that, even if you didn’t like their song, you had to respect their swagger. LeBron was a man on a mission, and at that point had empowered Mo Williams and Delonte West to their max potential. It did not take long for LeBron to assert himself as a juggernaut, either. Ultimately, there was something special about that Cavs team, and what stopped them (perhaps the only thing that could have stopped them) were Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic.
LeBron in the first quarter
In a word, LeBron was excellent. He started his game looking to distribute, and achieved it finding Anderson Varejao on back-to-back plays under the hoop. His passing was crisp, and he was not afraid to shoot, drive, or dish. Confidence poured from his pores and affected everyone around him. Announcers like to use the phrase “heat check” when LeBron is on the floor. It’s usually when he is taking jumpshots in defender’s faces on consecutive trips down the floor. Game 1 was certainly a “heat check” for LeBron. That was scary for Magic fans. Sure, it was easy to think, “He’ll cool off.” But would he?
How was Lebron’s drive on Dwight not the nail in the coffin?
In a game where the Magic basically played from behind the entire time, I was still a little shocked to see LeBron finishing an and-one on Dwight in a home court situation and not come out with the win. Of course, big three-pointers in the closing minute were key for Orlando, but the fact that it wasn’t a back-breaker for them speaks volumes to the level of confidence and composure that 2009 team had.
Dwight in the first quarter
In a word, he was ridiculous. Not even mentioning the fact that he dunked so hard the shot clock fell off the backboard, Dwight dominated in the post. Yes, he was blocked several times in the game (once by Z and twice by LBJ), but other than that he was clicking. The thing that impressed me most about Dwight’s game (especially in the first quarter) was how fluid his hook shot looked. He was reminiscent of Shaq in unbelievable ways with that shot. No one could touch it, and it honestly amazes me they didn’t go to him even more in the first half. I’d have gone to him every single time down the floor.
Turk and Lewis were nowhere to be found in the first half
The two guys who, in retrospect, we give the most credit for in the 2009 playoffs are Turk and Lewis. Rightfully so, but they represented two gaping holes in the Magic offense in the first half of Game 1. My memory failed me prior to watching this game. I seemed to remember the Magic gunning from deep and taking advantage of the length of Turk and Lewis on the perimeter. That wasn’t the case. Most of the first half was dominated by Dwight, which only allowed the Magic the status of “hanging in there” until the second half when these two were able to get over the hump.
Mo Williams and Delonte West in the second half
In a word, they were horrible. Everything was clicking in the first half, and it appeared that the steamrolling Cavs would not be stopped. Delonte and Mo combined for a sickeningly low shooting percentage (8 for 27), and to make matters worse, they kept shooting. I remember LeBron talking a lot about getting his teammates involved, and at that point, he was doing an excellent job of it. But Mo and Delonte are both as streaky as dirty windows, and it showed in Game 1. The usually spark-filled duo went ice cold in for almost three full quarters, leaving LeBron to carry the burden himself, and that obviously was not enough.
LeBron on the bench < Dwight on the bench
At one point late in the game, the Magic bench outscored Cleveland’s bench 25-5. Never was this more apparent than when either LeBron or Dwight was on the bench. It was almost as if when Dwight was out, the Magic got stronger. Conversely, when LeBron was out, the Cavs crumbled and looked lost. This was one of the best “team” appearances ever from Orlando, for the very simple reason that they responded well when their juggernaut was in foul trouble. It was like it didn’t even bother them.
Cavs’ passing so impressive
The Cavs moved the ball much better than I thought they did that season. Not much more to be said here. LeBron was especially good at finding perimeter guys across the court, and weaving passes inside to Varejao and Z.
Magic only successful through Dwight
I hate to say it but it’s true. There was something strange and somewhat bothering about the impact of Dwight. He was perhaps more valuable than LeBron as a one man wrecking crew. It’s only troubling because of my memory of this 2009 team being more like the 2011 Mavericks. That is, quick ball movement, everyone touches the ball, find the open man. There were moments of this, but primarily the Magic only went on runs when Dwight was getting looks. Unbelievable how it opened the floor up. And, of course, it didn’t hurt hitting some big shots down the stretch.
Impressive that Dwight stayed in the game as long as he did
Dwight picked up three ticky tack fouls in the first half, and spent a lot of time on the bench. That’s basically how the Cavs got up to such a big lead in the second quarter. Two things are impressive here. First, Dwight stayed aggressive while in the game, but not out of control. He could have fouled out minutes before he did. His composure kept the Magic in the game. Second, the bench responded extremely well with Dwight on the bench. Look at Gortat’s game and tell me it was not a terrible idea to deal him a year later.
Cavs shooting more three-pointers than the Magic
Again, my memory failed me. The Cavs shot a ton more threes than the Magic, and committed a ton more mental errors than Orlando. I, to a fault, paint the 2009 Magic as a hot shooting three-point team. At times they were, but they did not gun as many as I remember in Game 1. They were patient, and waited for good shots. And in the end, they hit some huge shots.
James’ 16 points in 5 minutes
I can’t look at this game without overselling how good LeBron James played. He scored 16 points in five minutes against who I thought was a very good Mickael Pietrus down the stretch. It was jumper after jumper, and all this after a monumental first half where anyone with a pulse would have to believe he couldn’t repeat it in the second half. I’ll be honest, when I re-watched the game it sparked questions in my head about LeBron leaving Cleveland. By the end of my viewing, I came back to my original conclusion—he made the right decision in leaving.
If you’re a LeBron fan, go watch this game. It’s one of the more satisfying LBJ experiences you’ll ever have.
When the Magic moved, they were hard to stop
It’s an old coaching standby. Tell your kids to move, and they will find success. Breaking down play for play in Game 1, it was evident when Turk and Lewis were moving to create. That means off the ball too. This seems like an obvious observation, but it’s worth noting. When those two moved, it was lights out and game over. I guess part of that had to do with their length, but in my estimation it was just good basketball versus bad basketball. The Cavs, in large part, sat around and watched LeBron in the second half. Another hat tip to Stan Van Gundy who kept the Magic moving and creating amidst the star showdown.
Stan Van Gundy: “They don’t know about this. We do.”
This was a crucial fourth quarter motivational speech from SVG, and not that I need to convince anyone in Magic nation of Van Gundy’s greatness, but he rallied that team to an unbelievable comeback in hostile territory. Every timeout he got the team under control, reminded them of how long the game was, stressed fundamentals, exhorted them to stay the course, and ultimately came out with a win. This quote was particularly great, because the Cavs did know about tough playoff spots at that point. They’d been to the Finals. But SVG convinced his boys otherwise, and you can’t look at Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals without pointing it out.
Turk down the stretch
Hedo is the game changer if you ask me. His poise and presence down the stretch was uncanny. With shades of Robert Horry or Bruce Bowen, Hedo was an x-factor that absolutely devastated the Cavs. His length and ability to see over defenders gave him the added advantage as he seamlessly weaved passes into the interior. All that without mentioning his clutch shooting and quick first step. Oh how the Magic wish they had 2009 Turk. He was a game changer.