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John Schuhmann

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Foes paying in Playoffs for not keeping track of Alston

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com
Posted May 28 2009 8:15AM

ORLANDO -- When a team has as many weapons as the Magic have offensively, its opponent has no choice but to play the percentages and hope for the best.

That's not working out too well for the Cavs.

Cleveland doesn't want to let Dwight Howard catch the ball close to the rim, and they don't want to give Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis open lanes to the basket or open shots from the perimeter. So, their defensive gameplan has been to take those three things away as well as they possibly can, and let the other guys try to beat them.

In the first two games in Cleveland, the Cavs didn't execute that gameplan as well as they would have liked. In Game 1, Howard destroyed them in the paint to the tune of 30 points. And in Game 2, Turkoglu and Lewis combined for 44 points, hitting 6-of-11 from 3-point range.

But over the last two games, the Cavs have improved defensively and, as much as possible, taken away the Magic's strengths. Lewis and Turkoglu combined to shoot just 10-for-22 from the field in Game 4 on Tuesday. And while Howard did some damage at the start of the game and was huge in overtime, he was relatively quiet most of the night.

For the most part, the Cavs' defense forced the ball where they wanted it to go. When they doubled Turkoglu on high screens or helped on Howard's rolls to the basket, they stayed home on Lewis and made somebody else take the shot.

Rafer Alston led the Magic with 17 field-goal attempts in Game 4, while Mickael Pietrus had 13. And that's what Mike Brown and his staff wanted. The Cavs did what they were supposed to do.

"They did a whale of a job competing and executing the gameplan," Brown said of his team afterward. "And we've got to give Orlando credit."

Give them credit because Alston and Pietrus made their shots. In Games 3 and 4, Alston shot 16-for-30 from the field and 8-for-16 from 3-point range. And Pietrus went 5-for-11 from downtown in Game 4, including a huge three in overtime.

"A lot of guys get shots because we're playing in a lot of ball movement," Stan Van Gundy said afterward, "and we've had a history of, you know, guys stepping up. Tonight it was Rafer and MP."

For Alston, this is nothing new. In every round of the Playoffs, he's been the guy defenses have left open.

"Philadelphia, their coach dared me to shoot it," Alston said Tuesday. "I burned them in Game 6 at their place. Boston dared me to shoot it. I burned them in Game 7 at their place."

"[The Cavs] are daring me to shoot it. The first two games, [I wasn't] so good shooting the ball. But here I am, it's the last two and I'm able to knock them down. It's a make-and-miss league. This is how it goes."

For much of the series, Alston has been guarded by LeBron James. Well, not really guarded, but Alston has been James' defensive assignment, which is supposed to allow the MVP to roam and double-team defensively.

But the Magic point guard used the lack of attention to his advantage, coming out aggressive to start the game on Sunday, and to start both halves on Tuesday.

Especially critical was the start of the third quarter in Game 4, when Alston scored his team's first 10 points (all on jumpers) of the period after playing just nine minutes in the first half due to foul trouble.

"His start of the second half was unbelievable," Van Gundy said.

The outburst helped the Magic close an eight-point halftime deficit, but it apparently didn't make the Cavs change their defensive priorities.

With the score tied early in the fourth quarter, Alston brought the ball up the middle of the floor. James stayed at the foul line, however, anticipating a screen-and-roll, and giving Alston almost 10 feet of space. Alston used it to calmly walk into a wide-open three from the top of the arc.

The Cavs' strategy finally paid off late in the fourth when Alston missed a pair of threes down the stretch, but if it weren't for his earlier aggressiveness and marksmanship, the Magic would be heading back to Cleveland with the series tied.

"He made it a lot easier on a lot of guys tonight because he was making shots," Lewis said afterward. "They wouldn't leave me on the wing. Every pick-and-roll we ran, their guy would stay home on me. So it was hard for me to get a shot off.

"But they were leaving him open, especially on the pick-and-rolls. And he was coming up big by knocking down shots, getting in the paint, as well as knocking down 3-pointers."

When Alston's doing that, when the guy you want shooting is hitting his shots, the Magic are nearly impossible to beat. It hasn't happened consistently in these Playoffs, but it's happened in the biggest games of each series. The Cavs have executed their gameplan in these last two games, but they have nothing to show for it.

"Rafer stepped up tonight," Howard said. "He wasn't Rafer Alston. He was the playground legend 'Skip to my Lou.' He was getting to the basket. He was finishing. He played with a lot of confidence. When he plays like the playground legend, then he's tough to guard."

Alston expects the Cavs to make an adjustment in Game 5 on Thursday (8:30 p.m. ET, TNT).

"I look for them to run me off the three-point line the next game," he said. "That's when I have to use the dribble, use the pump-fake, try to get in the lane."

When the Magic acquired Alston to replace the injured Jameer Nelson at the trading deadline, most believed it was a good deal that would keep Orlando near the top of the Eastern Conference standings.

But not many could have imagined that the trade would be paying off this late in May and helping put the Magic in the position they're in now: one game away from the NBA Finals.

NBA.com's John Schuhmann will be covering the Eastern Conference finals and the NBA Finals. If you have a question or comment for him, send him an e-mail. You can also follow him on twitter.

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