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John Schuhmann

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Cavs perplexed after disappointing finish to dream season

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com
Posted May 31 2009 2:09AM

ORLANDO -- If you want LeBron James' final thoughts on the Eastern Conference finals, you're going to have to wait.

After the final buzzer of his team's 103-90 defeat in Game 6 on Saturday, James left the floor without congratulating the Orlando Magic. And after he took his postgame shower, he headed straight to the team bus without addressing the media.

James was the deserving MVP in the regular season and took his game to a new level in the Playoffs. He was the best player in this series, averaging 38.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 8.0 assists. But that wasn't enough.

And his dream season ended with more frustration and pain than James has probably ever felt.

Not only was James at his best this season. With the addition of Mo Williams, he finally had a Robin to his Batman. And he finally had a real chance to win an NBA championship. Or so he thought.

All season long, the Cleveland Cavaliers had one goal. It wasn't to set a franchise record for wins or earn home-court advantage throughout the postseason. It wasn't to win the MVP or Coach of the Year award. The only trophy they wanted has Larry O'Brien's name on it.

The Cavs seemingly had the right formula. They were a great defensive team, they had the best player in the world, and they surrounded him with the best supporting cast he's had in his six seasons, as well as strong coaching staff.

Maybe the Cavs just ran into the wrong team at the wrong time. With a 6-10 point-forward, a 6-10 deep-shooting power forward, and a beast in the post, the Magic posed serious matchup problems. And on top of that, they shot the ball much better (48 percent from the field, 41 percent from 3-point range) than they did in the regular season or the previous two rounds of the Playoffs.

While the Cavs were sweeping through the Pistons and Hawks, the Magic struggled at times against the 41-win Sixers and Kevin Garnett-less Celtics. But Orlando saved their best for Cleveland.

"Our margin for error was very slim against this team," Wally Szczerbiak said, "because they do pose a lot of matchup problems for us, and they are playing at a very high level. We fought as hard as we could, and we just came up short."

Dwight Howard was not only dominant in the post, but he also made 70 percent of his free throws. And when the Cavs double-teamed him in the post or helped when he rolled to the basket after setting a high screen, the Magic made them pay on the perimeter.

"They had a dominant big man, they were knocking down threes all over the floor, and they had our heads spinning in rotations the whole entire time," Szczerbiak said.

"It seemed like they shot 100 percent from the three the whole series," Mo Williams added.

The Cavs did hurt themselves as well. They committed costly turnovers, missed critical free throws, and just didn't play big in big games. Williams shot poorly in the first four games of the series, not ready for the spotlight. And the rest of James' supporting cast was inconsistent at best.

So where do the Cavs go from here? Is their roster, as it stands, good enough to win a championship? Is it just a matter of Williams getting some big-game experience under his belt?

"I think this team is right there," Ben Wallace said. "I think we have to become less predictable on the floor when things get tough. We have to go up on the fly. We can't afford to look to the coaches and expect them to make all the calls. We have to go out there and know what we're going to do."

The Cavs did open things up offensively this season, but went back to too many isolations for James in this series. They became stagnant at times, lacking ball and player movement.

Still, it was their defense that failed them most of all. They were the second best defensive team in the regular season and the best through the first two rounds, but they were simply burned by the Magic too many times in the conference finals.

"That was our backbone all year," Szczerbiak said, "and we gave up 100 [points] every game except one. We couldn't find a way to stop these guys."

Two of Orlando's wins could have gone the other way had the Cavs been able to get a stop down the stretch. Just one stop at the end of Game 1 or Game 4 would have made a huge difference. But the Cavs just couldn't get it.

It will be an interesting summer in Cleveland. The Cavs' success through their first 90 games tempered any thoughts of James leaving a year from now. But with his supporting cast coming up short when it mattered most, and with the way he left Amway Arena, those thoughts have already resurfaced around the league.

Cavs general manager Danny Ferry has his work cut out for him. Szczerbiak's $13 million contract comes off the books in July, but the Cavs will still be over the salary cap. So Ferry will not have much flexibility as he tries to tweak the roster.

The Cavs could use more versatility on their frontline. They have four solid bigs in Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Anderson Varejao, Ben Wallace and Joe Smith, but none of them were able to match up with Rashard Lewis and none of them were able to give James much help offensively. Further, three of them will be at least 34 years old come October, and the other (Varejao) could decline his player option for next season.

But the Cavs have James for at least one more year. And no matter what happens to the rest of the roster, that means they'll likely have another shot at a championship. But as we saw this season, just having a shot at the title isn't enough.

NBA.com's John Schuhmann covered the Eastern Conference finals and will be covering 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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