Orlando Looks Tested, Cleveland Looks Lost

Cleveland had the best record in the NBA. They have the most talented basketball player on the planet. They swept the first two teams they saw in the playoffs, and looked loose and confident doing it.

But in the regular season, when they played the Lakers, Boston and Orlando — the other three of the four best teams in the NBA —  they were 3-6. They struggled when really tested.

It happened again Wednesday night. Cleveland looked seemingly unbeatable early — they were moving the ball, LeBron James had 10 points and four assists in the first quarter, and even Anderson Varejao was getting easy buckets. The Cavaliers led by 16 in the first quarter, they led by 15 at the half.

But Orlando doesn’t give up — they learned in a tight seven-game series against Boston how to win under pressure. They found in themselves what it takes to win — even without their real team leader in point guard Jameer Nelson. They learned not to quit. This is a team that has the same foundation of the championship squads of Houston from the mid-90s — a world-class talent in the paint surrounded by a team of guys who can shoot the three.

So it was inevitable that Orlando would make a run — and they had three little ones in the third quarter that made the game close. And Quicken Loans Arena got quiet. Then Orlando made an 11-2 run early in the fourth quarter, to take the lead. Orlando’s threes were falling. A team that lives and dies by the long ball was living again.

It was close at the end, and Delonte West stepped up and hit a big three to put Cleveland up by one with 40 seconds to go. But the battle tested Rashard Lewis answered with a 16-footer that put Orlando back on top by one.

Then LeBron James made the play that everyone in the arena thought was the game winner, driving into the lane right at Superman Dwight Howard (who inexplicably left his feet rather than just draw the charge) and both made the basket and fouled Howard out of the game. LeBron hit the and-one and Cleveland is up two with :25 seconds left.

All Cleveland has to do is what champions do — stay disciplined on defense under pressure. Let Orlando have a layup, just don’t give up another three.

Cleveland coach Mike James decided to go big (even thought Howard was sitting) and that meant Varejao on Lewis, and the Cavalier with the wild hair did not stay right on top of his man. Lewis had room to get off his three. He drained it. Orlando led by one.

Cleveland had one more offensive set, and everyone in the United States, Europe and most of China knew the ball was going to be in LeBron’s hand. And he drove in, passed up the pull-up open 10 footer, drove deep under the basket and then kicked the ball out to a teammate, and quickly it was West shooting another three with the game on the line. He missed it. That was essentially it. The best player on the planet passed up a shot with the game on the line and lost.

It was supposed to be the Lakers and Cavaliers in the finals. And when the Lakers were challenged in game one at home they responded like champions, like a team that has been tested. They got big defensive stops and hit the key shots.

Wednesday night, Orlando did the same on the road. But when Cleveland has really been tested this year, they have fallen short more often than not. Orlando is not the shell of a once great Pistons team or a banged up Atlanta team. They are talented, know their system, and play hard.

LeBron and Cleveland may well still win this series. But if they do it will be because they have grown. The team on the court Wednesday was not ready yet.

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