Magic Set Finals Single Game Field Goal Percentage Record, Beat Lakers 108-104The Orlando Magic set an NBA Finals single game record by shooting .625 from the field and had five players score between 18 and 21 points as they defeated the L.A. Lakers 108-104, cutting the Lakers' lead to 2-1. The 1991 Chicago Bulls had held the Finals single game field goal percentage record (.617), narrowly edging the 1987 Lakers (.615); both of those teams went on to win the championship, though the 1985 Celtics shot nearly as well (.608) in one game but still eventually lost to the Lakers. Dwight Howard led the Magic with 21 points and a game-high 14 rebounds. He also had just one turnover after committing seven in game two. Howard shot 5-6 from the field but his field goal attempts in this series do not accurately indicate how involved he is offensively because the Lakers are fouling Howard when he catches the ball deep in the paint; Howard shot 11-16 from the free throw line. Rashard Lewis also scored 21 points in addition to contributing five rebounds and five assists. Rafer Alston provided some much needed scoring punch from the point guard position with 20 points--but no one who understands basketball is surprised that Alston shot much better at home than he did in the first two games of the series on the road. Mickael Pietrus added 18 points, including what proved to be the game-winning putback dunk plus two free throws that pushed Orlando's lead to four points with :28.7 remaining. Hedo Turkoglu played the point forward role to perfection with 18 points, seven assists, six rebounds and just one turnover. The Magic only attempted 14 three pointers, making five, but they killed the Lakers with pullup midrange jumpers and scored some timely uncontested layups. The Lakers' matchup advantages and length on defense have been much discussed but the Magic hardly seemed overmatched or too small in this contest; in fact, they pretty much picked the Lakers apart--literally, by using pick and roll plays--from start to finish.
Kobe Bryant scored 69 points and had 16 assists in the first two games of the Finals. The last four players who reached both of those marks in the first two games of the Finals--Michael Jordan in 1997, 1992 and 1991 and Jerry West in 1969--won the Finals MVP, though of course West's Lakers lost the Finals in seven games to the Celtics despite his triple double (42 points, 13 rebounds, 12 assists) in the last contest. Bryant produced 31 points, eight assists and three rebounds in game three--and became just the third player to amass 100 points and 24 assists in the first three games of an NBA Finals series--but he shot 11-25 from the field and just 5-10 from the free throw line. When the Lakers win, their talent and depth receive high praise but when the Lakers lose the bulk of the attention is usually focused squarely on Bryant. All of the self-proclaimed experts surely have their "Michael Jordan would have never missed that many free throws" articles ready but students of basketball history recall that in the game before Michael Jordan hit "The Shot" over Craig Ehlo he missed free throws down the stretch that cost his Chicago Bulls a chance to win; so before Henry Abbott, John Krolik and crew carry on about how THIS was the BIGGEST game of Bryant's career, let's just see how the series plays out, instead of trying to write history before the history has even taken place.
After the game, Bryant said, "We lost this game on the defensive end. We had been playing very good defense and the team tonight shoots 62 percent from the field." Look at Orlando's team and individual numbers again: a Finals record field goal percentage spearheaded by five players scoring between 18 and 21 points, each of whom shot at least .583 from the field. That is just unacceptably bad defense; any good defensive game plan focuses on stopping certain things that the other team does well while potentially conceding other shot opportunities but the Lakers did not contain any of Orlando's key players. All season long I have written about how inconsistent the Lakers are defensively, in contrast to Kevin Pelton, who bizarrely claimed that the Lakers are using some kind of revolutionary defensive tactics, a contention that Lakers assistant coach Jim Cleamons flatly rejected when I asked him about it early in the season; Cleamons told me at that time, "The only thing we’re doing is what a lot of teams have decided to do: basically, playing a man to man defense that is actually a zone; we’re sending an extra defender over in situations that we feel threatened. There’s no big secret about it; that’s what we’re trying to do: give more help when we can and we’ve been fortunate thus far." Around the midpoint of the season, I spoke with Cleamons again and he provided this candid assessment of the Lakers' defense:
Anyone who watches film and is a student of the game would see that we don't play with the same intensity day in and day out, game in and game out. If you are going to be a championship caliber team, your defense is the one area that doesn't waver. We aren't good enough on a game by game basis to do what we need to do to say that we are going to be accountable in the end. Then, our rotations are not always what I like to call 'on point.' Sometimes, they are nonexistent, sometimes they are a little bit slow. If you are a good defensive team, then you play better on the defensive end than you do on the offensive end, because that (defense) is where you are really linked together; (in that case) the team has a feeling of when they have to help and a sense and a presence of how they need to get there so that when the ball moves and flows your defense is not always reacting. You are kind of ahead or you arrive right on the catch so the offense knows that you are there and there are no gaps in your rotations.
The Magic are a tough team to guard because they surround Howard with several players who not only can make three pointers but are also able to put the ball on the floor and either get to the hoop or pull up and shoot midrange shots--but the Lakers' defensive rotations in game three were late and/or incorrect. This is a problem that you could actually see starting to crop up in the second quarter of game two, when Lamar Odom fell asleep and let Lewis go off for 18 points, mostly on uncontested shots. The most effective defense against Orlando--the one that I have been mentioning since the Pistons beat the Magic in the playoffs last year--is to single cover Howard, foul him to prevent any dunks, and play the rest of the players straight up. Howard should only be double-teamed once he puts the ball on the floor, because that is when he is vulnerable to being stripped by smaller players and because he is not a great passer when he is on the move. Doubling Howard when he is holding the ball is not a good idea because that provides him with an easy read--and doubling Howard with a small player like Fisher when Howard is holding the ball is particularly pointless because Howard will simply throw the ball right over Fisher's head. However, Fisher has done a good job of trapping Howard when Howard is on the move, "digging" at the ball and creating a lot of disruption. The problem is that in the last game and a half the Lakers seem to have lost some of their discipline and focus defensively. Of course, the other obvious factor is that teams shoot better at home than on the road, so what Orlando did in game three is only surprising from the standpoint that the Magic set a Finals record.
Pau Gasol had 23 points on 9-11 field goal shooting but grabbed just three rebounds in 39:47. Trevor Ariza scored 13 points and had a team-high seven rebounds but shot just 5-13 from the field. Lamar Odom had just 11 points and two rebounds in 32:23, while Jordan Farmar chipped in 11 points in 15:56 off of the bench. Derek Fisher had solid numbers (nine points, two assists, no turnovers) but was burned repeatedly by Alston. If the Lakers truly are a deep team, nine-time champion Coach Phil Jackson apparently does not realize it because other than Odom and Farmar only three other reserves saw action and that trio combined to play fewer than 15 minutes--and listing Odom as a bench player is really just a matter of semantics because he plays starter's minutes and is usually on the court at the end, while nominal starter Andrew Bynum plays reserve minutes and has rarely had an impact during the postseason; Bynum had just four points and four rebounds in 23:20.
Despite Orlando's hot shooting, the Lakers actually led 31-27 after the first quarter, mainly because of a spectacular 12 minutes by Bryant, who had three assists in the first 2:57 and then erupted for 17 points on 7-10 field goal shooting. Overall, he accounted for 10 of the Lakers' 14 made field goals but ABC commentator Mark Jackson made an important point about how Bryant's impact extends beyond the boxscore numbers: "What people don't realize is that the reason why Pau Gasol is able to play one on one is Kobe Bryant is on the strong side so that eliminates his man's double teaming." That is why the Wages of Wins approach--which concluded that Gasol outplayed Bryant in the 2008 Finals even though anyone who understands basketball realizes that is false--is so deeply flawed: baseball is a station to station game with discrete actions that can be quantified but basketball involves a complex interaction of 10 players and sometimes one player scores an easy basket because the other team is focused on stopping his teammate. Along similar lines, Jackson's broadcast partner Jeff Van Gundy was amused by the idea that Bryant had a subpar game two: "When you get 29 points and eight assists and you're unhappy, you're really, really good." After Bryant concluded his first quarter onslaught with a four point play, Van Gundy concluded, "That could have been the best quarter I remember watching someone play in the Finals in recent memory." Bryant cooled off in the second quarter but he did execute a great shot fake to draw a foul on Pietrus, though in a bit of foreshadowing Bryant only split the resulting pair of free throws. Van Gundy said, "If you want to look at (a) textbook, fundamental shot fake--watch how hard he went on the dribble and then raised the ball all the way above his head, imitating his jump shot to perfection. Talk about his great athleticism--this is honed in the gym: two hard dribbles, great pullup shot fake." Why does this matter? Henry Abbott--and a lot of the "stat gurus"--contend that Bryant plays a more aesthetically pleasing game than other stars such as LeBron James and that the beauty of Bryant's game masks his flaws but Abbott is not just wrong about this, he is in fact completely missing the point: while James and some of the younger stars like Dwyane Wade may have more athletic ability now than Bryant does and are able to do some flashy and visually impressive things (such as the so-called "chasedown blocks") what Van Gundy correctly notes is that Bryant is in fact an extremely fundamentally sound player and that is the real basis of Bryant's greatness; NBA TV commentator Steve Smith--who played against both Bryant and Michael Jordan--recently said that he considers Bryant to be the most fundamentally sound player in the history of the game, possessing better footwork even than Jordan. Whether you agree or disagree with Smith's statement, the important thing to understand is that when actual NBA experts like Van Gundy and Smith watch a basketball game and analyze Bryant's skill set they are seeing a much different game than 99% of the people who write about basketball, which is why such a high percentage of what is written about basketball is wrong.
The Magic led 59-54 at halftime, setting a record for best field goal percentage for one half in any Finals game (75%). Why even mention Bryant's first half performance when the Magic had the lead, ultimately won the game and Bryant did not come through in the clutch? Simple--while so many people ramble on ad nauseam about how talented the Lakers are and how deep the Lakers are, the reality is that the Lakers are highly dependent on Bryant creating shots for himself and shots for his teammates. When Bryant is not able to do that the Lakers have problems. It is interesting how so many people (erroneously) call the Cleveland Cavaliers a one man team but apparently don't recognize just how dependent the Lakers are on Bryant. In the wake of Bryant's 21 point first half, the Magic understandably focused more attention on Bryant in the third quarter and he responded correctly by drawing multiple defenders--Bryant later said that the Magic threw the "kitchen sink" at him--and then passing to wide open teammates. Bryant did not make a field goal until the 1:20 mark of the third quarter but what was really odd was that he shot just 2-5 from the free throw line, including 1-3 after he was fouled while shooting a three pointer. As Phil Jackson said after the game when asked to explain Bryant's shooting, "We're all frail as humans." Meanwhile, the Magic received third quarter contributions from multiple players, with Howard scoring seven points, Alston adding six points and Turkoglu, Lewis and Courtney Lee also making shots.
The Magic led 81-75 after three quarters. In game two, Bryant played the whole second half and overtime but after playing Bryant for the entire third quarter Coach Jackson decided that he had to give Bryant some rest. As highly conditioned as Bryant is, people seem to forget that he is indeed human and that for this team he is asked not only to shoulder the Michael Jordan scoring role in the Triangle Offense but also the Scottie Pippen playmaking/ballhandling role. Coach Jackson said after the game that he had planned to keep Bryant out for at least five fourth quarter minutes to try to rejuvenate him but that circumstances did not allow him to do that; those circumstances were the fact that the Lakers looked dead in the water without Bryant in the game as the Magic built a 91-82 lead, their biggest of the series. Once Bryant returned, the Lakers mostly ran the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll action for the rest of the game and that proved to be highly effective, enabling the Lakers to tie the score at 99 with 2:41 left. Bryant only had five points and two assists in the fourth quarter but he played a critical role in the Lakers' comeback, as Mark Jackson noted: "Right now, Kobe Bryant is running the pick and roll as a decoy. He is a willing passer making plays." Here is what Jackson is talking about: after Gasol set a screen for Bryant, two Orlando defenders trapped Bryant, who swung the ball to the weakside where either Fisher, Ariza or Farmar were open. Those guys either took uncontested three pointers or fed the ball in the post to Odom, who could establish deep post position and go one on one because the Orlando defense had tilted to Bryant and was now in full rotation. It is this type of action that "advanced basketball statistics" completely fail to accurately describe, because other than a couple assists there is no boxscore record of Bryant's impact but he essentially created virtually every shot that the Lakers took after he returned to the game. One of the assist passes--a feed to Fisher for a three pointer that cut Orlando's lead to 95-93 at the 5:25 mark--merited special praise from Van Gundy, who does an excellent job of specifically explaining why certain plays are not as easy as great players make them appear to be: "That hook pass going to your left is an incredibly difficult pass. He made it on time and on target."
Bryant and Gasol did an excellent job of changing the angles of the screen and the way that Bryant attacked the defenders--and the other Lakers came through by knocking down shots but after exerting all of that energy to wipe out a nine point lead the Lakers simply did not have enough in the tank to finish things off; the final 2:41 represents a wasted opportunity for the Lakers, starting with a missed Turkoglu jumper that the Lakers failed to rebound, enabling Pietrus to crash the boards from the weakside and get a tip dunk. Bryant then missed a three pointer and Alston split a pair of free throws to put the Magic up 102-99 with 1:54 left. Gasol answered with a layup on a feed from Bryant but then Lewis hit a jumper with his toe on the three point line to make the score 104-101 Magic. Bryant drew a foul on Howard but only made one of two free throws. The Lakers got a crucial defensive stop as Gasol blocked Lewis' runner but the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll that had sparked the Lakers' comeback fell apart on the next critical possession, as Howard poked the ball loose from Bryant. Gasol recovered the ball while lying on the court but instead of calling timeout he tried to pass in tight quarters to Bryant and Pietrus came up with the steal. Bryant fouled Pietrus, who coolly knocked down both free throws. The Lakers missed four three pointers--and got four offensive rebounds--in the final 28 seconds before Bryant got an offensive rebound under the hoop and made a layup with just :00.5 left. Bryant fouled Lewis as Lewis caught the inbounds pass but with just :00.2 showing on the clock and the Lakers out of timeouts the game was already effectively over. Lewis capped off the scoring by making both free throws.
You can expect that the same people who were foolishly speaking of a Lakers' sweep just 24 hours ago will now overreact to this game and talk about how the Lakers are in trouble. The basic realities of this series have not changed. The Lakers have the best player, they own homecourt advantage and--when focused--they are quite capable of matching up defensively with the Magic, who needed record field goal shooting on their homecourt plus a highly unusual free throw shooting performance from Bryant to eke out a four point win. The next game will be completely different--the Magic will not shoot .625 from the field, nor will Bryant shoot .500 from the free throw line--but it most likely will again be very competitive. The Magic need to win three straight home games to have any realistic chance to win this series and it will be very tough for them to pull that off. The most likely scenario is that the Lakers will get one win in Orlando and then close out the series at home in game six.
posted by David Friedman @ 4:03 AM