Overview: Once again, this game defies overview. Instead, we give you three recaps for the three parts of this game:
Act 1, Beginning of the Game to 7:11 in the Second Quarter-Cavaliers look dominant.
The Cavaliers came out looking absolutely fantastic, like they wanted to get this game out of the way with nothing in the way of muss or fuss and go do the real work in Orlando. Offensively, they were getting out on the break at every opportunity, establishing Z in the post early, Delonte was making tough drives on his man to stop Orlando from being able to zone up on LeBron, LeBron was taking it to the hole early and often and looked like he didn’t want to settle for a single thing, the ball was moving and everyone was playing off of each other, and the Cavaliers got a 30-point quarter on the best defensive team in basketball.
The defense was even more impressive-the Cavs stopped being deathly afraid of three-pointers and giving good, strong double-teams on Howard and then rotating hard and smart to the three-point shooters, never letting Rashard or Hedo establish themselves off the dribble, and making great recoveries to prevent easy layups when penetration ocurred. Hedo and Rashard had absolutely nothing going, and the Cavs were cruising.
The bench even put together a great run to start the second quarter; Pavs had some beautiful drives to the basket, everyone was going tough to the hole and drawing fouls instead of settling for jumpers, and Joe Smith hit a three. LeBron resting, Cavs up 23, crowd insane, series tied. Right? Wrong.
Act 2, 7:11 Q2 to 6:14 Q4: The Cavaliers Collapse
From here, everything got bad. Dwight was never really a factor offensively (intruiguing), but Rashard sure as hell got going. And the Cavs just could not defend without fouling. The breakdown was defensive, no doubt about that; it seemed like we were always chasing somebody, and open looks kept on manifesting themselves. Offensively, it was pretty much LeBron doing all the work and driving the lane time after time again; there just weren’t people stepping up to make the big shots, the floor kept on getting smaller and smaller, and turnovers were happening and the defense was just not able to get set and lock in at any point. Hopefully the pendulum swings the other way in Orlando, but this is just a freaking dangerous offensive team, and we need to figure out a better way to deal with them. Hedo is just so good at worming his way into the lane, and Rashard never stops moving and just doesn’t miss those open shots. It happened slowly, with a three coming off a Cavs basket or a Cavs turnover leading to free throws, but the Magic crawled all the way back to make it a tie.
Act 3, 6:14 Q4 to 0:01 Q4: The Stretch Run
LeBron made a layup to tie the game with 6:14 to go-those were his last points until the final second. Offensively from there, the Cavs went to LeBron going to the lane on pretty much every play, and the Magic were sitting and waiting, clogging the lane and forcing the kick-0ut. Mo and Zydrunas made two HUGE jumpers here to put the Cavaliers up by three each time, and for a second it looked like we were going to escape after all. But then Mo missed the single easiest look of his career (HE WAS ABLE TO SEAM UP THE BALL), Pietrus and Mo traded layups, and the Cavs, with a possession that could have put the game away, had LeBron get fouled on an attempted back-door lob and get stuffed on the drive.
Then Big Ben got absolutely lost on a screen and allowed Hedo a practice three to tie the game, and LeBron took about 11 steps, and the Magic had it with 34 seconds left, and Pavs gave a cheap foul on the perimeter to give them the last shot. Hedo made a tough runner in the lane with a second left. Game over. Cavs collapse. Season on the ropes. LeBron’s last shot was a travel.
Encore: 0:01 seconds left.
There was no rhyme or reason to the final play. On Wednesday, LeBron James had the best playoff game of his career. Not only was he driving the hole, he brought out the post-up moves and couldn’t miss a jumper. He was making every play down the stretch and sealed it with a beautiful and-1 drive that saw the league’s MVP and DPOY meet each other at the rim and the MVP come up bigger. Then Varejao didn’t keep his hands up in a no-three situation, Gortat came on a smart double, Delonte missed an open short-corner three, and the coronation was over.
On Friday, the funeral was a second away. The Cavs had blown the biggest lead of the playoffs, and were about to lose two in a row on their supposedly infallible home floor. LeBron’s lack of a reliable jumper had been exposed down the stretch when he was forced to drive into a waiting defense and got absolutely stuffed, and then, with the season on the line, he did, of all things, travel. (Even worse than the crab-dribble; LeBron took about 7 steps. That was less a walk than a hike.)
If Hedo Turkoglu takes literally one second longer to make his move, King James’ coronation takes another year, at least. But he didn’t. And Hedo bit down to cover the possible lob instead of preventing a run-out to the three-point line at all costs. And LeBron hadn’t made a three all night. For that matter, he’d only made two jumpers. And he’d only made one buzzer-beater in his career. And never in the playoffs. And never from three. None of that mattered when the ball went through the net and landed. Lights on. Wrist extended. Game over. Series tied. Season Alive.
Greatness , even superlative greatness, without perfection is the reality that we’ve all been forced to confront since Jordan left. Ever since the Bulls won six straight tiltles whenever #23 played a full season on their side, we’ve been searching for someone to take that mantle, to be infallible when it matters most. We’re still looking. Nothing is black or white, not even in this series. LeBron is one three away from being the undisputed hero of the playoffs and another away from being the biggest goat. As Wednesday shows, no one game can be perfect, even if it’s one of the best ones you’ve ever seen.
On Friday, Cavalier fans finally understood the magic of the last-second shot, how it can have even more meaning than a 49-point game or 29 points down the stretch in a row or an And-1 with 30 seconds left that should seal the game. There are no perfect games. But there are perfect shots, perfect moments. On Wednesday, LeBron James had the best game, overall, of his postseason career. On Friday, he made the best play of his career. One was great; the other perfect. And it’s perfect that can finally make questions so away, if only for 48 hours.