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Game of the Day: April 11

Orlando Magic at Cleveland Cavaliers — 1 PM eastern, telecast on ABC

This game will be more interesting in the absence of LeBron James. It’ll also be one the Magic have to win to prove they can play with the Cavs come playoff time.

The league’s top two teams (by a wide margin) square off in a rematch of last year’s conference finals, and it should be a great contest.

The Magic face the Cavaliers for the first time since they acquired Antawn Jamison from the Wizards and since Shaquille O’Neal injured his hand. Missing, too, from the Cleveland rotation will be James, whom Mike Brown is electing to sit so he can rest for the upcoming postseason.

Vince Carter should have a good day against Anthony Parker and Delonte West, so look for big points from him. Jamison and Rashard Lewis will be a great matchup, as both feature the perimeter game as their primary means of scoring.

Most important for Orlando will be Dwight Howard’s play. He’ll only be dealing with Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Anderson Varejao up front, whose inability to guard D13 in last year’s summer collision led to Danny Ferry’s acquisition of the Diesel in the offseason.

The Cavaliers have won two of the teams’ three meetings this campaign, but both of those wins featured 30-point scoring outbursts from LeBron. To be honest, they have very little chance without the King or the Big Cactus. Give the W to Orlando.

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Making Magic: Will VC do the trick?

The Magic made the finals in June. Will Vince Carter help them do one better in 2010?

The Orlando Magic really didn’t stand much of a chance against the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals last June. Certainly, a converted layup in the final seconds of Game 2 could have swayed the momentum in Orlando’s direction, but I think the Lakers still would have pulled out the series victory with ease.

As March winds down, the Magic are once again going to make the playoffs. But considering that late exit from the championship series last year, is there any reason we should expect that they’ll have a chance to defeat the Lakers in 2010?

There is — and his name is Vince Carter.

Don’t get me wrong: VC hasn’t played up to expectations this year. His PER is down about two-and-a-half points compared to last season, and his points, rebounds, and shooting percentages are all down, too. But to suggest that Carter is a step down from Hedo Turkoglu (whom the Magic let go in a de facto swap for Carter) is just an absolute crock.

Carter shouldn’t expect to be putting up the same stats as he did in ’08-’09 while one of the few offensive bright spots on a hapless Nets roster. He goes from being the first option on offense to being the second (behind Dwight Howard), with two other starters who also want their touches in Rashard Lewis and Jameer Nelson. What Carter should be expected to do, however, is get the ball in the hoop in times of need for Orlando. For years, the Magic have lacked a go-to player on the perimeter (and to propose that Turkoglu is that go-to player is ridiculous). Howard can’t be relied upon down the stretch, as he’ll be double and triple teamed around the rim. Having a player like Carter, who can hit the 20-foot fade, adds a dynamic to the team’s offense that it previously lacked.

So the Magic go from Courtney Lee to Carter at the 2 and from Turkoglu (who’s sucking it up in Toronto) to Matt Barnes, who is — believe it or not — having a better year than Hedo.

Let’s look, then, at how the Magic can match up and compete with the Lakers and the Cleveland Cavaliers, too. Sure, they could face other teams in the late stages of the playoffs, but these are the two squads I think they’ll actually have trouble beating.

Cleveland Cavaliers

The Cavs made the move to bring in Shaq during the offseason specifically to counter the magic. O’Neal’s one of the league’s few players who even has a hope of successfully defending Dwight Howard in the post in single coverage, and he’ll be resistant to having any help anyway. Nevertheless, Howard will do work down low.

The addition of Vince Carter bodes well against the Cavs, though. While he’ll draw a tough defensive assignment in Anthony Parker, he’ll stretch the D as a whole, giving Howard more room to operate in the paint. Figure in Rashard Lewis to draw Varejao and Antawn Jamison away from the rim with the constant threat of his perimeter shooting, and I expect Orlando will dominate the Cavs down low.

That LeBron guy poses a bit of an issue, though. Matt Barnes will draw the assignment for the most part, and he won’t be able to defend the King on his own. His defensive rating is a respectable 102, but LeBron is too strong and big for the lanky Barnes to contain him. Accordingly, the Magic will have to double, leaving the various sharpshooters (Parker, Jamison, Delonte West, and Mo Williams) open for jumpers. But a dominating inside games always beats a dominating outside one. The Magic move on.

Los Angeles Lakers

It’s daunting to even think about playing L.A. Should we see a rematch of last year’s NBA finals, the Magic should be shaking in their boots. It’ll be a trade off of dominating post players, as Howard will outwork Andrew Bynum down low and Pau Gasol is too physical to be contained by Lewis. Kobe will be Kobe, and the Magic don’t have Lee to at least try to defend him this year, not that he could really curb Kobe’s production anyway.

Orlando will have a fully healthy Jameer Nelson who will tear Derek Fisher apart with his quickness and shooting ability. So chalk up that advantage in favor of the Magic. Vince Carter, too, will an added outside offensive presence that Turkoglu couldn’t provide last year. However, the Lakers have a premiere defensive player in Ron Artest who should be able to keep VC in check (I expect they’ll put Artest and Carter and hide Bryant on the less-threatening Barnes until the final minutes.

Because of the addition of Artest, I think the Lakers repeat if this is the matchup. If it were still Ariza playing the 3, I might think differently. But Carter won’t be able to overpower artest, and Kobe will be fresh for crunch time when that stacked roster really depends on him most.

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