NBA Playoffs: Why the Magic can win it all and frustrate Cavs fans at the same time

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Thumbnail image for Howard_game.jpgThe Orlando Magic finished with the second-best record of any team in the league. They are the reigning Eastern Conference Champions. Furthermore, the old cliches go that defense and dominant big men win championships. The Magic lead the league in defensive efficiency, and have easily the best big man in the league on their roster. For some reason, the Magic are still regarded as a “gimmicky” choice to take home the Maurice Podoloff trophy come finals time. Maybe it’s because the Magic have never won a title before. Maybe it’s because they take so many threes. Maybe it’s because their coach has a goofy mustache. I don’t know the reason why the Magic still don’t seem to be getting taken seriously as championship contenders, but I do know a bunch of good reasons the Magic can win it all this season. Without further ado:

1. Defense

Defense wins championships, and the Magic play defense as well as anybody. Stan Van Gundy has the league’s best defensive player, and he knows how to use him. Dwight Howard shuts down the paint (no team gives up fewer points in the paint than the Magic), and the rest of the players on the Magic are adept at showing hard on the perimeter and funneling opposing players towards Howard. With Mickael Pietrus and Matt Barnes functioning as perimeter stoppers and shutting down opposing wings, the Magic managed to lead the entire league in defensive efficiency this season. 
2. Dwight Howard

Yes, he’s not quite a dominant one-on-one scorer with his back to the basket. Yes, his free throw shooting is still a serious issue. In spite of all that, Dwight Howard is still easily the best big man in the league. He’s capable of overpowering almost any center that tries to guard him one-on-one with his combination of strength and speed, and he’s improved his low-post game this season. If Howard is making his hook shots on a given night, it’s game over. No low-post player commands more double-teams. Howard is completely unstoppable when he catches the ball around the basket in dunking range, forcing teams to sag on the pick-and-roll and free up the Magic’s perimeter players. Pundits will focus on what Howard isn’t, but opponents will focus on what Howard is — and be completely terrified. 
3. Three-Point Shooting

The Magic love the three-ball, and for good reason. Vince Carter, Rashard Lewis, Pietrus, Jameer Nelson, J.J. Redick, Jason Williams, Ryan Anderson, and Matt Barnes are all more than willing to pull the trigger from deep, and they’re all capable of making those threes when given the slightest bit of daylight. When the Magic are making their threes, they’re all but unstoppable. When they’re not, they still have the league’s best defense and Dwight Howard working inside. The Magic’s love of the three-ball makes them seem like a feast-or-famine team, but really they’re more like a feast-or-five dollar chicken plate from Ralph’s team. And five-dollar chicken from Ralph’s can be pretty darn tasty. 
4. Perimeter Scoring Options

Vince Carter and Jameer Nelson are both dangerous options as primary scorers. J.J. Redick has matured into a complete offensive player capable of handling the ball and draining open shots. Rashard Lewis is one of the most versatile power forwards in the league. Mickael Pietrus can get hot at any time, and certainly isn’t shy. When opposing teams double down on Howard, the Magic have plenty of guys more than willing to make teams pay for doing so. 
5. Stan Van Gundy

Van Gundy is perpetually hoarse, and does not look like a basketball course. He also has a knack for creating a system that allows his personnel to thrive, finding matchup problems, and isn’t afraid of making a risky choice if he thinks it will benefit his team. He might not look the part, but Van Gundy is one of the best coaches in the league and definitely helps the Magic’s chances of winning it all. 
6. A Chip on Their Shoulder

Too many teams play the “no respect” card in the playoffs, but the Magic really seem to believe it. Van Gundy has been fueling their fires all season in this regard, and the Magic certainly seem eager to prove that they deserve to be taken seriously as championship contenders. This postseason, they’ll have their chance. I’m eager to see what they can do with it. No team blends old-school values with new-school effectiveness better than the Magic do. We’ll see if that can be a championship formula. 

Kyrie Irving rubs salt in wound, gets 42nd point with behind-the-back ball fake (VIDEO)

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Kyrie Irving was awesome Tuesday night.

Unless you are a Boston Celtics fan, in which case it was hard to watch him carve up and embarrass your team for a career-best 42 points. He did a lot of that damage after rolling his ankle.

Particularly embarrassing was the final play of the game, when he drove past Marcus Smart and Kelly Olynyk, then went with the behind-the-back ball fake that burned Jae Crowder and opened up a lane for an uncontested layup.

Check out Irving’s entire night here.

Utah Utes forward Kyle Kuzma reportedly rising up draft boards

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Kyle Kuzma wasn’t sure how things would play out when he announced plans in late March to test the NBA draft. The Utah Utes junior forward was well aware of the doubters and didn’t immediately hire an agent to keep open the option to return for his senior year.

A month later, Kuzma has hired an agent and is rising up the pre-draft rankings after a superb NBA combine and strong individual workouts. He’s considered an early to mid second round pick.

“I just got more confident, I’m not going to lie, throughout the whole process,” Kuzma said Tuesday. “Working out every day with the NBA ball and just imagining yourself down the road. Once I declared with an agent prior to the combine, people’s ears raised up. But I just knew it in my heart it was the right decision for me. Everything’s really falling in line right now. It’s looking good.”

The Flint, Michigan, native had a pre-draft workout with the Utah Jazz on Tuesday and continued to show evaluators an ability to shoot the ball from NBA 3-point range. Kuzma was named first-team All-Pac-12 after a 2016-17 season during which he averaged 16.4 points, 9.3 rebounds. The 6-foot-9, 223-pounder has a versatile game that allows him to handle the ball on the perimeter as a playmaker with good size, but he shot just 32.1 percent from behind the arc last season.

Kuzma turned heads with 20 points and four-for-five shooting on 3-pointers in his lone 5-on-5 scrimmage at the combine.

“I changed my jump shot up a little bit,” Kuzma said. “Being more fluid and more comfortable shooting the ball from the NBA 3. I feel like I’m more comfortable shooting from that 3 than from college 3 right now. A lot of people were surprised, but I really wasn’t. I put a lot of work into my game every single day.”

Kuzma had another quality workout Tuesday, according to Jazz vice president of player personnel Walt Perrin, and continued to shoot the ball well. Perrin said Kuzma was by far the best player at the six-man workout and that he wished he could have brought Kuzma in to face a more talented group.

The versatility of Kuzma’s game is a positive even though he falls into a tweener category – a little slight to be a true power forward and not quite quick enough to be a pure small forward. That may not matter in today’s NBA.

“We’re going more and more toward positionless players,” Perrin said. “You look at Golden State … they don’t have guys that play certain positions. They have the best players on their team playing. … We’ve gone to nobody posting up, basically, to everybody being able to put the ball on the floor and create shots on the perimeter, penetrate and kick to guys wide open in the corner for threes.

“The guys on the floor have to be able to guard their so-called position. And I think we’re looking more and more at that in terms of he can have an advantage on offense, but where is his disadvantage or advantage defensively?”

The Utes were well represented at the workout with forward David Collette joining the group.

The 6-foot-8, 220-pounder hasn’t hired an agent and is expected to return to school. Perrin couldn’t discuss Collette because of that, and he couldn’t talk to the media, but Kuzma said the rising senior showed off a newly refined midrange jump shot. The Utes will rely heavily on Collette as the lone returning starter, who averaged 13.6 points and 5.1 rebounds last season.

Utah will lose its best player to the NBA draft for a third consecutive season as Kuzma follows Jakob Poeltl and Delon Wright. The process has kept Kuzma smiling as he met childhood idol Magic Johnson, watched his stock rise and is on the verge of playing basketball for a living.

“I feel like you’ve got to be two feet in with everything you do,” Kuzma said. “I definitely looked at the pros and cons, but my heart was in getting to this level and trying to prove people wrong again like I’ve done my entire life.”

Celtics’ coach knows the difference in this series: LeBron James and Kyrie Irving

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For 24 minutes Tuesday night, Boston showed Game 3 was not a fluke.

“I thought we played as well as we have played these entire playoffs in the first half,” Celtics coach Brad Steven said. “We were really good defensively. Offensively I thought we moved, and cut, and played together.

“Then, for whatever reason, all those things became a little bit more difficult. That’s what great teams do, they make it really hard on you.”

Whatever reason? What was the difference in this game?

Kyrie Irving and LeBron James, would be your two answers,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said.

Those two Cleveland All-Stars took over Game 4 Tuesday night for stretches — Irving in the third when he had 21, LeBron in the fourth — and for the game they combined for 76 points on 49 shots.

LeBron and Irving were they reason Cleveland won Game 4 Tuesday night, and they have been the difference in this series — Boston is a good team, but the Cavaliers have the two best players in this series (one could argue Kevin Love makes three) and the Celtics have no answer.

The Cavaliers are a championship team. However, they are not one that is not about the system, not one where their success is about franchise culture.

The Cavaliers are great because they have one of the game’s all-time great players, surrounded by a couple other All-Stars. They thrive by forcing teams to switch mismatches then going at right at them — Irving and LeBron were sixth and seventh in the NBA this season in percentage of isolation plays for them. Cleveland doesn’t run a motion offense like the Golden State team it will see in the finals, the Cavaliers are simple but efficient.

The mindset is straightforward: We have the better players, just try to stop us.

Boston had little success in this series playing that way — when Isaiah Thomas tried to pick apart the athletic Cavaliers defenders off the pick-and-roll both he and the Celtics struggled. Thomas had an offensive rating of 83 points per 100 possessions in this series before he was sidelined with an injury.

Without him, Boston had to rely on a more balanced, egalitarian offense — move the ball, move without the ball, find the open man, and trust him. The Celtics’ improved defense without Thomas was forcing more turnovers, and the Celtics were gang rebounding well. The result was a 123.4 points per 100 offensive rating in Game 3, then a decent 106.7 in Game 4 (despite the rough second half).

It just wasn’t enough.

Because the Cavaliers have LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. Two of the elite players in the NBA.

And in the NBA, talent wins out.

Charles Barkley tells Shaq he had to ride the coattails of Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade (VIDEO)

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Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley can sometimes get into it on TNT’s programming surrounding NBA games, but Tuesday night after the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Boston Celtics in Game 4, 112-99, was something different.

The two got testy — even more so than usual — as Barkley and Shaq traded insults.

Most notably, O’Neal went after the fact that Barkley only once made the NBA Finals, while Chuck told Shaq he had to ride the coattails of Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade to get his rings.

It felt at least partially real, especially if you watch Ernie Johnson’s reaction during the back-and-forth.

Via Twitter:

Game 4 was more interesting, but a 30 minute special where Chuck and Shaq actually do move the furniture and throw down might draw more viewers than these playoffs.