INDEPENDENCE, Ohio - Mike Malone has always followed his father Brendan's advice. A respectful son, he still calls his dad regularly for guidance on life and hoops.
Those conversations temporarily are on hold.
"Now that it's us against them," Mike Malone said with a smile, "I don't plan on talking to him for a little while."
Papa Malone won't be dialing his son's number either.
"We'll probably see each other on the court, and that's it," Brendan Malone said.
There's a family subplot to this season's Eastern Conference final between Cleveland and Orlando. The Malone family is divided. Mike, tracing his father's coaching footsteps, is in his fourth season as an
assistant with the Cavaliers while Brendan, Cleveland's interim coach for 18 games at the end of LeBron James' second pro season, is on Stan Van Gundy's staff in Orlando.
With the best-of-seven series set to open tonight, the younger Malone made an obvious prediction on the outcome.
"There will be a Malone in the NBA finals," he said.
May the best Malone win.
After sitting around for the second time in these playoffs, the series-sweeping Cavaliers, who broomed Detroit and Atlanta into early summer vacations, are expecting a much stiffer chal-lenge from the Magic. Orlando won both of their matchups at home against Cleveland during the regular season, including a 116-87 thrashing on April 3 - the Cavaliers' worst loss in 90 games.
Cleveland has lost just once since that mauling by the Magic, and that setback came in overtime in the April 15 season finale against Philadelphia, a game James, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Mo Williams sat out to rest for the playoffs.
Coming off a second-round upset of the defending champion Celtics, Magic players, who won Game 7 on Boston's parquet floor, are a confident bunch heading into Game 1.
"We're not satisfied," Orlando center Dwight Howard said yesterday. "Yeah, we are happy we got past the second round. But we're not satisfied. We don't want to just be happy and hand them the series. We have enough talent to win a championship, and we don't want to let an opportunity slip by."
Same goes for the Cavaliers, who don't seem too concerned about the Magic despite last month's lopsided loss in Florida.
"Hopefully, they're comfortable and feeling themselves right now," Williams said. "We're a different team, trust me. We're motivated to play. We're focused."
For the opener, Van Gundy will return rookie guard Courtney Lee to the starting lineup, replacing J.J. Redick, who started every game against the Celtics and did a nice defensive job on Ray Allen. Lee has been coming off the bench since fracturing his sinus in the Philadelphia series.
"We figured they would do that," Cavs coach Mike Brown said.
Devising a defensive strategy to slow Howard and the Magic's talented troop of outside shooters will fall partly on Mike Malone, the Cavs' unofficial defensive coordinator. Since joining Brown's staff, Malone has helped the Cavs become one of the league's stingiest teams.
Cleveland was the top defensive unit during the regular season and is limiting opponents to 40 percent shooting (31 percent on 3s) and just 78.1 points so far in the playoffs. The Magic, averaging 96.1 points in the postseason, shot 54 percent in the April 3 win over Cleveland, making 13 of 27 3-pointers.
"This team poses so many problems with Dwight and the shooters around him," Mike Malone said. "You have to make sure you guard Dwight first, and get out to their shooters. They've got a bunch of guys who can knock it down. That's who they are."
And while the Cavaliers are balanced, they have something the Magic can't match: James.
The league MVP has taken his game to an even higher level in the playoffs. He's averaging 32.9 points, 9.8 rebounds, 6.8 assists and seems more determined than ever to deliver a title to a city that hasn't celebrated a championship since the Browns won it all in 1964.
In three games against Orlando, James averaged 30.7 points, 9.7 rebounds and 7.0 assists. On March 17, he dropped 43 points on the Magic in a 97-93 win.
Howard feels there's only one approach to take in guarding James.
"You can't be afraid," said the league's defensive player of the year. "When he comes down the lane, you have to stand in the lane. You have sacrifice your body for the betterment of the team. We understand that. We have to keep him out of the lane. He's going to get in there sometimes, but we have to be able to force him out."
James and his teammates should have fresher legs than the Magic as Orlando has played 13 games in the postseason to Cleveland's eight. During the layoff, James invited the Cavaliers over to his house to grill out, watch playoff games on TV and bowl. (Yes, King James has customized lanes in his 35,000-square foot mansion).
James was flattered to hear Hall of Famer Jerry West said the 24-year-old has surpassed Kobe Bryant as the league's best player.
"That's great," James said following practice. "That's the man who is the logo of the NBA. You can't play basketball without seeing Jerry West every single day. For him to say something like that is humbling."
James was then asked if only he could stop himself.
"Um," he said, pausing. "I don't want to say that."
He then reconsidered.
"Yeah, I will say that. You're right."
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