By John Denton
April 4, 2017
CLEVELAND – LeBron James is a one-man mismatch with his rare combination of size and speed and defensively he’s turned the chase-down block into an absolute art form. But the true genius of his game – one used to win four MVP awards and three NBA titles – has always been his ability to carve defenses apart with his passing.
Always more Magic Johnson than Michael Jordan when looking for a legendary landmark to measure greatness, James can dominate games for long periods without ever scoring a point because of his tremendous vision.
An Orlando Magic team very familiar with James’ talents as a passer found that out the hard way once again on Tuesday. In the process, the remarkable passing paved the way for Cleveland and James to keep alive two streaks that have become head-scratching mysteries for the Magic.
James notched his 12th triple-double of the season, but it was his passing in the third quarter that ignited Cleveland’s stagnant offense and allowed it to defeat the Magic 122-102 at Quicken Loans Arena.
“He just has great vision, man, and they have so many 3-point shooters on the floor that it makes for a tough coverage,’’ said Magic guard Evan Fournier, who was forced to try and guard power forward Kevin Love (28 points, 11 rebounds and five 3-pointers) so that the bigger Aaron Gordon could check James. “Especially with me on Kevin Love, it draws the weak side over and (James) just picks you apart.’’
James had seven of his 11 assists in the third quarter – a 12-minute stretch where Cleveland (50-27) outscored Orlando (27-51) 43-20 to wipe out the Magic’s encouraging two-point halftime lead. James’ passing – he had assists on six straight baskets at one point – allowed Cleveland to make a jaw-dropping 17 of 24 shots and nine of 13 3-pointers in the third period.
“Nobody can survive that (third quarter), but our guys tried and they competed,’’ said Magic coach Frank Vogel, who was delighted with his team’s three-point lead after one quarter and the two-point edge at halftime. “A couple of (Cleveland’s threes) came off breakdowns, but the bottom line is you have to bring help to elite players. Kyrie (Irving) and LeBron had 13 assists in that (third) quarter. We’re trying to bring some help on Kevin Love, who hurt us in the first half, and that just triggers their championship-level ball movement. That’s why they are champs. They were at their best in that (third) quarter and they were too much for us.’’
How about this for incredible passing vision: Eight of James’ 11 assists led to 3-pointers – shots that were back-breakers for the Magic. Cleveland shot 53.7 percent from the floor, drilled 18 3-pointers and handed out 30 assists.
Tuesday’s outcome meant the Magic’s misery against Cleveland and James will continue throughout the quickly approaching offseason. The Cavs have beaten the Magic 17 times in a row – a streak that incredibly dates to Nov. of 2012 and is the longest such team-to-team skid in the NBA.
Meanwhile, James – who had 18 points, 11 assists and 11 rebounds in 37 minutes – pushed his personal streak to 18 consecutive wins against Orlando. This one would be another victory because of the way that James played in the third quarter – a period where James had just two layups, but his assists led to five 3-pointers and two more wide-open jumpers. In all, James had a hand in 28 of Cleveland’s 43 points in the game-turning third quarter.
“He does a great job of finding shooters and he’s a very good passer,’’ Gordon said of James. “If you’re not pressuring him, he just picks you apart. I actually thought we did a good job of (limiting James’ scoring).’’
Orlando, which led by three points after the first quarter and by two at the half, got four 3-pointers and strong play throughout from Fournier. Terrence Ross (12 points) and Gordon (12 points) were productive despite poor shooting nights, while Elfrid Payton chipped in 12 points, six assists and four rebounds and center Nikola Vucevic had 10 rebounds to go with his six rebounds.
Irving chipped in 24 points and eight more assists. J.R. Smith, a Magic killer in Cleveland’s three wins this season, scored 19 points and made five 3-pointers.
There were some questions about whether Cleveland would rest James, Love and Irving after it needed double-overtime and lots of energy to defeat the Indiana Pacers on Sunday night. Also of concern for the Cavs is Wednesday’s showdown against the Celtics in Boston. Cleveland came into Tuesday trailing the Celtics for the top spot in the Eastern Conference by a half-game.
Despite the lopsided nature of the third quarter, Orlando continued to fight and trimmed a 22-point deficit to 12 early in the fourth. But the momentum wouldn’t last long as James found Smith for another 3-pointer to blunt the rally.
Newcomers Patricio Garino (four minutes, one rebound) and Marcus Georges-Hunt (four minutes, one rebound) made their Magic debuts in the fourth quarter after inking contracts with the team on Monday.
Orlando will be back on the practice floor on Wednesday before hosting the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday. The game will serve as a rematch between the two teams that played in Brooklyn this past Saturday night. The Nets won that game 121-111 as the Magic were carved up defensively in the paint.
“We just need to continue to play hard and try to establish an identity for ourselves and set a standard of basketball for ourselves,’’ said Gordon, the lone bright spot in Saturday’s loss in Brooklyn with his 32 points and 16 rebounds. “We’re not focused on the opposition; we’re focused on our core and our values and on playing a style of basketball that we can rely on every night.’’
Any thoughts the Cavaliers had of dispatching the Magic early in the night faded in a first half that was dominated for long stretches by Orlando. The Magic led 31-28 after one period and made it to halftime holding an impressive 55-53 advantage.
The Magic didn’t shoot the ball particularly well in the early going (40.9 percent), but they made up for it by burying five 3-pointers and sinking all 14 of their free throw attempts.
Fournier was good from the outside (two threes) and he attacked on the inside, resulting in a layup and six free throws for 14 first-half points.
Also, an Orlando bench that was shelled in Saturday’s loss in Brooklyn played well in the game’s early going. C.J. Watson, who will be rotated at back-up point guard the rest of the season with D.J. Augustin, made all three of his first-half shots for nine points. Jodie Meeks also scored seven off the Magic bench in the first half.
Unfortunately for the Magic, that promising play wouldn’t hold up in the second half as James grabbed the game by the throat and dictated with his passing excellence.
“They had (25 3-pointers) in a game this year and it’s because both (James) and Kyrie are elite one-on-one players and as soon as you bring any help they have the 3-point shooting support to make you pay,’’ Vogel lamented.
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