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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

More overrated: 2008-09 Cleveland Cavaliers or Dwight Howard?

If I've learned anything from the Eastern Conference Finals it's that the Cavaliers and Dwight Howard are in a fight to be the most overrated story of the season - series loser taking the title.

For all the hype of LeBron James' shot to win Game 2, it should be negated - not in history but at least in terms of this postseason - by the Cavaliers play in the series' first, third and fourth games.

Largely untested in rolling to an 8-0 start to the postseason including an all-time record of eight consecutive double-digit wins, you would expect them to be rusty in Game 1 of this series, but not to lose just their third home game of the season (and only the second in which they played their starters.)

If it wasn't for LeBron's huge shot, there would have been talk about a sweep going into tonight's Game 4 and the notion that the 2008-09 Cavaliers may be one of the most overrated teams in recent history. (That discussion should come to fruition after tonight's result.)

It was the same LeBron who looked skittish at the end of Game 3, taking bad shots and yielding a turnover that essentially sealed the loss. I don't blame him, the ever-deserving league MVP, but his team as a whole, and especially head coach Mike Brown. The coach of the Harlem Globetrotters could have done a better job getting the Cavs to close out on 3-pointers last night - especially Rashard Lewis's go-ahead shot before LeBron's gift free throws that sent the game to overtime. (I don't know what was worse, that call or not giving Howard two free throws after he was undercut by Anderson Varajeo with 0.5 seconds left in regulation.)

From the embarrassing Finals sweep at the hands of the Spurs to an inability to win Game 7 against Boston last year and now a slow start in the second-biggest series of James' career, the clues have been there. And don't forgot the one team that won in Cleveland during the regular season when its starters played - the Los Angeles Lakers, also won the season series 2-0 by a combined 27 points.

Losing to an experienced and heavily favored Spurs team in 2007 as well as a destined and talented Boston team last season is completely understandable. But after starting the season 43-1 at home with its starters (including the playoffs) the last thing anyone expected was for the Cavs to be in a 3-1 hole to a team that lost its starting point guard - Jameer Nelson - halfway through the season, with that single win because of the greatest shot in the young career of one of the top two players in the league.

(Much credit due to acquired-from-Houston-guard Rafer "Skip to My Lou" Alston for keeping the Magic among the East's elite.)

For all the criticism Magic head coach Stan Van Gundy gets for making bad decisions under pressure, he's gotten his team pretty far despite being written off after losing Nelson.

Partially to credit for that 3-1 advantage is Dwight Howard, despite being the most overrated player in the league. He has one move, no touch around the basket and a poor attitude, as evidenced by his postseason-leading six technical fouls - one shy of a suspension.

He is an athletic freak (who should've won the dunk contest for the third time) and the best shot blocker in the game, even if he makes no effort to control where those blocked shots end up. The only exception would be when he eats them for jump balls like he did to James at the end of overtime tonight.

But too often Howard takes himself out of the game mentally because he's disappointed in the refs, his teammates, his coach, or maybe even the Magic dance team. It never seems, however, that he is genuinely upset with himself.

And in case you haven't noticed, Dwight Howard disappears offensively in the fourth quarter of big games. Fourth quarter points this series in Game 1: four; Game 2: zero; Game 3: eight (all eight on free throws on his home court); Game 4: one.

That's 13 points total in four games, nine of them on free throws. He is averaging 0.5 field goals per fourth quarter. I said, the starting center for the Eastern Conference All-Star team is averaging one fourth quarter field goal for every two games this series.

(Kobe Bryant's fourth quarter totals for each Western Conference Finals game, in order: 18, eight, 12 and 14.)

And if you didn't notice how Howard scored all his points in overtime tonight, it was straight bullying. Not that there's anything wrong with that, get your points how you can, but that's going to catch up to him more often than not, especially when a team plays better defense so that he's not left wide open with no chance to take a charge.

Regardless of who wins this series, the Cavaliers as a whole and Howard as a player will look like impostors against Los Angeles or Denver. The Cavs probably need a solid veteran to compliment James, Mo Williams, a hard-nosed but streaky Delonte West, the volatile Anderson Varejao and the rest of the cast to be true title contenders.

Howard on the other hand needs an attitude adjustment and probably an improvement in work ethic as well.

If the Lakers can get past the Nuggets, the door will be wide open for Bryant to win his fourth NBA title and send the Cavs or Howard back to the drawing board.


(For the record I think Howard is more overrated simply because James is a great player who gets better every day and makes the Cavs a contender, albeit an overrated one.)

Sidenote: Michael Jordan wouldn't have lost the NBA Finals last year the way Kobe's Lakers did, and he wouldn't perform the way LeBron has this series against the Magic*. Just further proof that there may never be an heir to his throne.
*Turnover prone at the end of games and unable to make free throws. In other words, MJ would have found a way to be up 3-1 or at least tied 2-2 in this series, no matter what the supporting cast.

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