Lakers Edge Magic in Overtime to Take 2-0 LeadIt was neither easy nor pretty but the Lakers displayed just enough grit, savvy and clutch play to defeat the Orlando Magic 101-96 in overtime to take a 2-0 lead in the NBA Finals. Kobe Bryant led the Lakers with 29 points and eight assists, adding four rebounds and two steals, but he also had seven turnovers in a game-high 48:30. Pau Gasol contributed 24 points and 10 rebounds; he scored seven of the Lakers' 13 overtime points, including a key three point play on a feed from Bryant to put the Lakers up 97-91 with 1:14 remaining. Lamar Odom made his presence felt with 19 points on 8-9 field goal shooting, eight rebounds and three blocked shots. Foul trouble limited starter Andrew Bynum to 16:24, so Odom played 45:43. Derek Fisher also did a solid job with 12 points, shooting 2-3 from three point range. The Lakers did not receive many contributions from other players--Trevor Ariza played good defense but shot just 3-13 from the field--but what their "Big Four" gave them proved to be enough. Although the Lakers are frequently referred to as a deep team, their four double figure scorers each played at least 41:04 in this game and three of the five reserves who saw action played six minutes or less. Odom is essentially a starter in everything but name or--more precisely--he is a finisher, since he gets the bulk of the minutes alongside Gasol instead of Bynum and is usually on the court in crunch time; therefore, the Lakers have a strong top five consisting of Bryant, Gasol, Odom, Fisher and Ariza but their reserves (Bynum, Luke Walton, Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic and Shannon Brown) are not making huge contributions, though Bynum was effective in game one and Brown played well at times in earlier playoff series.
Bryant's seven turnovers tied his playoff-high this season; oddly, in four of his past six playoff games Bryant has had exactly one turnover but in the other two games (game six versus Denver and game two versus Orlando) he had seven. Bryant had eight assists in each of his seven turnover games and the Lakers won on both occasions. The Lakers are riding a four game playoff winning streak during which Bryant has averaged 31.5 ppg, 8.5 apg and 5.8 rpg while shooting .494 from the field and .919 from the free throw line. It says a lot about just how well he has played during his career (and during these playoffs in particular) that both Bryant and Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said that game two was not a great performance by Bryant's standards--the latter qualifier being the key component of that statement. However, ABC commentator Jeff Van Gundy insisted that "great plays by Kobe Bryant down the stretch" played a vital role in the Lakers' win; Bryant shot 10-22 from the field and 8-10 from the free throw line, scoring 23 of his points after halftime. By my count, Bryant shot 8-14 on midrange shots; his ability to consistently make those shots--the one skill set attribute that LeBron James has yet to master--is why Bryant is particularly deadly in the playoffs because it forces even the best defensive teams to make the unenviable choice between being torched by Bryant or else sending a big to contest his shot, which then frees up Gasol or Odom on the inside (this is exactly what happened on the key possession in overtime, when Bryant dished to Gasol for the three point play that put the Lakers up six and all but sealed the win).
Rashard Lewis led the Magic with a game-high 34 points, setting a playoff career-high and establishing a new franchise record for most points scored in a Finals game. He also had 11 rebounds and a playoff career-high seven assists while shooting 12-21 from the field, including 6-12 from three point range. Hedo Turkoglu added 22 points, six rebounds and four assists. After Mickael Pietrus fouled out, Turkoglu played very solid defense on Bryant, using his length to contest Bryant's shots and even forcing a few turnovers by stripping the ball from Bryant or getting Bryant off balance by using his size. Dwight Howard had a very unusual stat line: 17 points, 16 rebounds, four assists, four steals, four blocked shots, seven turnovers. The only other player in NBA playoff history to amass at least 15 points, 15 rebounds, four assists, four steals and three blocked shots in one game is Hakeem Olajuwon but Howard's turnovers were costly; while Bryant had a lot of dead ball turnovers (balls that were thrown out of bounds, deflected off of his body, etc.), Howard lost the ball in live ball situations that enabled the Lakers to push the ball up the court in transition or semi-transition. Every turnover obviously signifies a lost possession but any good coach will tell you that live ball turnovers are worse than dead ball turnovers because of the pressure that the live ball turnovers put on your transition defense.
Other than their "Big Three," the only Magic player who made more than one field goal was J.J. Redick, who scored five points on 2-9 shooting in 27 minutes. Magic Coach Stan Van Gundy called Redick's number out of desperation more than anything else: Point guards Rafer Alston (1-8) and Jameer Nelson (1-3) combined to shoot 2-11 from the field, so Van Gundy experimented with various lineups, including using Turkoglu as his playmaker when Redick was nominally the point guard but was really in the game purely to space the court and make open shots (which he failed to do overall, though he did nail a big three pointer to tie the score at 84 with 2:21 left in regulation). Van Gundy joked after the game that he has pretty much exhausted every possible lineup combination at his disposal other than the super huge quintet of Howard, Lewis, Turkoglu, Marcin Gortat and Tony Battie (each of whom is at least 6-9). That may seem like a humorous throwaway line in a postgame press conference but if you really think about that what it means is that the Magic are really struggling to figure out how to match up with the Lakers; Orlando's shooting guards are too small to offer much resistance to Bryant, their point guards are neither making shots nor creating shots for others and the Lakers have prevented Howard from having a breakout offensive game.
The first quarter featured some of the ugliest, most disjointed play in Finals history, culminating in a 15-15 tie--the lowest combined first quarter scoring total in the NBA Finals during the shot clock era, which began in 1954-55. The Magic committed eight turnovers, while Odom was the high scorer with just five points. In the second quarter the Lakers began to find their rhythm offensively, while the Magic continued to struggle--except for Lewis. After the game, Bryant said, "We blew a lot of assignments tonight" and you can bet that right at the top of that list were the numerous times that Odom inexplicably allowed Lewis to roam unchecked behind the three point line; Lewis scored 18 of Orlando's 20 second quarter points, making four three pointers and singlehandedly keeping the Magic in the game during the first half. During that run, Odom played what basketball aficionados might call "Carmelo Anthony defense" (or at least the defense that Anthony has played for the greater part of his career, though to be fair it must be noted that Anthony made strides at that end of the court this season): on several occasions Odom was neither close enough to Howard to form an effective trap nor was he within range to contest Lewis' shots. ABC commentators Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy rightly noted that Odom was truly in "La La land." There is a tendency to forget or discount what happened in the second quarter of a game that ultimately went to overtime but the reality is that without those "missed assignments" the Lakers would have had a double digit halftime lead instead of only being up 40-35. After the game, Coach Jackson mentioned that the Lakers need to get at least 20 good minutes out of Bynum, in part because they like using Gasol against Lewis defensively; when Bynum is on the bench then Gasol has to check Howard and Odom ends up chasing Lewis around on the perimeter. Despite all of the breathless talk about Odom's versatility--and he certainly played a good game overall and has played well in the past four games--his best skill set attribute is his ability to rebound, so the downside of having him guard Lewis is not only that Odom is not used to chasing perimeter players through screens but also that this takes Odom away from the paint, although in this game both Lewis and Odom rebounded well.
In the third quarter the Lakers did a better job checking Lewis but Turkoglu got loose for 14 points as the Magic enjoyed their best quarter of the series (30 points) to take a 65-63 lead heading into the fourth quarter. The fourth quarter was tightly contested, featuring several ties and lead changes, with neither team going up by more than three points. Howard, who shot 7-9 from the free throw line, made a pair of free throws to put Orlando ahead 81-79 with 4:13 left in the fourth quarter. Bryant split a pair of free throws at the 3:35 mark but after that the Lakers made their final 13 free throws in the fourth quarter and overtime, including four by Bryant to put the Lakers up 84-81. Redick answered with his clutch three pointer and then Lewis made a running bank shot to give Orlando an 86-84 lead with just 1:33 left. In the next minute, Bryant, Turkoglu and Gasol each hit shots. After Courtney Lee missed a layup, the Lakers had the ball with 9.1 seconds left and the score tied at 88. Bryant drove past Turkoglu into the lane but Turkoglu recovered and blocked Bryant's jumper from behind. Turkoglu controlled the rebound and the Magic called timeout with .6 seconds remaining. Then, after the Magic used a second timeout when they could not inbound the ball, Turkoglu threw an inbounds pass from halfcourt to Lee underneath the basket, but Lee's layup attempt dribbled off of the rim as Gasol came over with a late contest; Lee got open thanks to a very solid backscreen set by Lewis at the free throw line against Bryant, who admitted after the game that he had been leaning toward the perimeter, expecting the Magic to try to get an open look for one of their three point shooters.
The overtime started out like the first quarter in miniature, as neither team scored in the first 1:23. Gasol broke the ice with a pair of free throws but Howard countered with a three point play to put Orlando up 91-90. After the teams traded misses, Bryant hit a tough runner to put the Lakers ahead for good--but their lead was still tenuous until they got some breathing room by returning to the action that was so effective for them in game one, the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll action. Bryant used Gasol's screen to get free just to the right of the lane, while Gasol cut straight to the hoop down the middle of the lane, remaining parallel with Bryant; this was crucially important, as Bryant noted after the game: he and Gasol had talked about how to time this play perfectly to force Howard to either commit to stopping Bryant or else stay at home on Gasol, which would give Bryant an unfettered path to the hoop. Howard elected to confront Bryant, so Bryant delivered a slick feed to Gasol, who converted a three point play to make the score 97-91. The Magic pulled to within 99-96 after a left corner three pointer by Lewis with :26.2 left--using the same out of bounds play that they used to force overtime versus the Cavaliers in game four of the Eastern Conference Finals-- but Odom closed out the scoring by making two free throws.
The series now shifts to Orlando for at least two games (three if the Magic get at least one win). In response to a question about whether the Lakers could continue to put forth the energy that they did in the first two games at home, Bryant declared, "We're about to kick it up. You better believe it. We're close. You see what I'm saying? This is the Finals. We're going to be ready to go."
Naturally, the postgame press conferences would not be complete without questions about Bryant's facial expressions and general demeanor. Someone asked Bryant if he would smile now that the Lakers have a 2-0 lead and Bryant looked at the guy as if he should be committed to an insane asylum before stating flatly: "The job is not finished."
posted by David Friedman @ 2:00 AM