Los Angeles Versus Orlando PreviewNBA Finals
Los Angeles (65-17) vs. Orlando (59-23)
Season series: Orlando, 2-0
Orlando can win if…they establish Dwight Howard in the post as a consistent 20-plus ppg threat while also making 9-10 three pointers a game with a three point shooting percentage around the .380-.400 range. Against the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals the Magic had wonderful ball movement that generally resulted in an open three point shot for Rashard Lewis, Hedo Turkoglu or Mickael Pietrus. They must continue to pass and shoot that effectively in order to beat the Lakers. Defensively, the Magic would like to hold Kobe Bryant to below .450 field goal shooting without allowing too many open shots for his teammates.
Los Angeles will win because…the Lakers will be able to single cover Howard in the post for key stretches, limiting Orlando's ability to go on huge scoring runs fueled by three pointers. The Lakers will put more pressure on Lewis, Turkoglu and Pietrus than the Cavs did, forcing them to either shoot contested jumpers or else put the ball on the floor and make plays. The Magic will have trouble containing Bryant, who is likely to post the highest Finals scoring average of his career, surpassing the 26.8 ppg he scored in the Lakers' 2002 sweep of the New Jersey Nets.
Other things to consider: Last year I picked the Lakers to beat the Celtics in the Finals not because I bought into all of the hype about how deep the Lakers supposedly were but because I did not think that the Celtics would have an effective answer for the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll play; that action was a major reason that the Lakers averaged 105.9 ppg on .478 field goal shooting while going 12-3 in the Western Conference playoffs in 2008 but the Celtics swarmed Bryant and forced his teammates to make plays, which they were not able to consistently do.
I don't think that the Magic will be able to contain the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll nearly as effectively as the Celtics did in the 2008 Finals. Even though the Magic won both meetings with the Lakers this season (see below for more details), the Magic struggled to prevent the Lakers from getting good, open shots out of that set, so look for the Lakers to feature it repeatedly. If the Magic respond by swarming Bryant--which they inevitably will have to do at some point--the onus will fall on Gasol to be aggressive while Lamar Odom dives strongly to the hoop from the weakside to either receive feeds for layups or crash the offensive boards and Derek Fisher, Trevor Ariza, Sasha Vujacic and Jordan Farmar spot up behind the three point line: ironically, a key factor in this series could turn out to be whether or not the Lakers give the Magic a taste of their own medicine by bombarding them with three pointers.
Andrew Bynum will probably spend most of this series in foul trouble but that is not a problem because the Lakers only need to get a good 15-20 mpg out of him. The Lakers must limit Howard's catches in the paint, foul him whenever he is close enough to dunk and then force Howard to guard someone (either Gasol or Bynum) at the other end of the court.
A major X factor in this series is the possible return of Orlando's injured All-Star guard Jameer Nelson, who was expected to be out for the season after injuring his shoulder. Nelson has been working out with the team and there is some speculation that he might play in the Finals. I saw Nelson shooting around at Quicken Loans Arena prior to game five of the Eastern Conference Finals. I did not think that he looked particularly sharp but I have not seen him shoot around often enough to really know if he looked better or worse than normal; he seemed to be in excellent condition and was not noticeably favoring the injured shoulder. He wore a regular game uniform with a shooting shirt over his jersey.
The Magic beat the Lakers 2-0 in the regular season, much like they defeated the Cavs 2-1; I dismissed their record against Cleveland because Nelson played in one Orlando win and the other win took place with Cleveland on a long road trip while the Magic were well rested. Similar extenuating circumstances apply regarding Orlando's wins over the Lakers. The first time the Lakers played the Magic (December 20, 2008) they visited Orlando the night after losing in Miami; Bryant scored a then season-high 41 points but the Magic won, 106-103. The Lakers kept Howard under control (18 points, 12 rebounds) but Nelson shot 11-16 from the field and torched them for 27 points. The Magic visited the Lakers on January 16, 2009; both teams were well rested and Nelson punished the Lakers with 28 points and eight assists in a 109-103 Magic win. Howard had 25 points and 20 rebounds but shot just 8-18 from the field and 9-16 on free throws. Bryant had the first of his two triple doubles this season (28 points, 13 rebounds, 11 assists); he led the Lakers in all three categories by wide margins and he really played a marvelous game even though he ended up shooting 10-26 from the field--he shot 10-20 in the first 46:44 and 0-6 in the final 1:16 as the Lakers tried to mount a late rally. After that game, I wrote, "Is it good to shoot 10-26 from the field or 0-6 in the last 1:16? Of course not--but a careful examination of those final six shots shows that Bryant made the right plays even though the shots did not go down." You can click on the link and read the rest of the post for a detailed breakdown of those late shot attempts but the point is that the Lakers were able to use the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll to repeatedly and quickly create high percentage shot opportunities, including a Bryant three pointer that went halfway down before coming out. The Magic had a lot of problems guarding Bryant in both games and the Lakers were in position to win on each occasion despite the trouble they had dealing with Nelson.
It may seem strange that I just touted the beginning of the Dwight Howard era yet now I am picking the Lakers to beat the Magic but those are not mutually exclusive propositions; often a great player must first lose in the Finals before eventually triumphing: that was the case for Isiah Thomas, Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaquille O'Neal, three legends who lost in their first trip to the Finals but went on to win multiple championships. The Lakers have homecourt advantage and a hungry superstar with championship experience who presents a serious matchup problem for the Magic; those factors will be the primary reasons that the Lakers will prevail.
posted by David Friedman @ 4:03 AM