The Orlando Magic were undefeated against the Lakers in the regular season, winning two close games for a record of 2-0.
The Magic combine solid outside shooting with the frightening dominance of Dwight Howard, while the Lakers rely on the sheer magnificence of Kobe Bryant and the best supporting cast in the NBA.
The Magic were able to overcome the pesky 76ers in six, the defending champion Celtics in seven, and disposed of the 66-win LeBron-led Cavaliers in six games.
The Lakers, for their part, overwhelmed the Jazz in five, took down the Rockets in seven hard-fought games, and defeated the Nuggets in six tough games.
The Lakers are back in the Finals for the second consecutive year, while the Magic have earned their first Finals appearance since the days of Shaq and Penny.
The postseason is a different game, but can the Magic continue its dominance over the Lakers all the way to the championship, or is the Lakers' 15th win in 30 trips to the Finals all but in the books?
Prior to the trade deadline, Jameer Nelson was running the point in Orlando.
The statistics don't lie when comparing the head-to-head matchup between him and Fisher at this position.
Jameer was the main reason Orlando were able to pull off two victories over L.A. in the regular season. He dominated Fish, and it wasn't even close. With Jameer sidelined for the duration of the Finals, the responsibilities of PG fall on Rafer Alston.
L.A. was undefeated against the Alston-led Houston Rockets teams this season (prior to the trade), with neither player asserting himself on the court during those matches.
Still, one has to think that Rafer's coming out party was the Eastern Conference Finals, whereas Derek Fisher struggled mightily against the Denver Nuggets, albeit against one of the top defensive point guards in the league.
Nevertheless, Fisher's inability to hit open threes and carry the load offensively, and Rafer's extreme importance for Orlando, especially in Games Four and Six in the Eastern Conference Finals, makes one think that the edge belongs to Orlando here, but only slightly. Derek has the edge in experience and toughness, having won three championships and been to five NBA finals. Not having the services of Jameer Nelson will hurt Orlando's chances, but I still favor Rafer in this battle of point guards.
Rafer Alston: 4
Derek Fisher: 3
Orlando will be defending Kobe much like they attempted to defend LeBron James—by committee.
During the regular season, Kobe averaged 34 points per game against the Magic, in two non-divisional and arguably uninspired games. He will be as dominant as ever, and Van Gundy will rotate a variety of players in a vain attempt at stopping the game's greatest player.
The series will depend on whether or not Kobe can find ways to distribute the basketball and also whether or not he can hang a signature dunk on Howard, a la Jordan on Ewing ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1HDdT1oBcXA ).
Lee is a capable defender, but I suspect that Mickael Pietrus will see more minutes on the floor than he will. Big edge to Lakeshow at this position.
Kobe Bryant: 4
Courtney Lee: 0
Rashard Lewis is like a young, 6'11" Ray Allen.
His star is finally born and he has matured into a perennial all-star with matching offensive and defensive abilities.
How Seattle (now Oklahoma) let this star get away is a matter for another discussion, but it's clear now that without Rashard, the Magic do not make this year's Finals.
He opens the floor for Dwight Howard down low with deadly accuracy beyond the arc, and has the ability to fake shot and put the ball to the floor and create his own offense. Moreover, his height affords him the luxury of posting up on the entire league of smaller small forwards.
Phil Jackson, every once in a while, revives a player from the dust heap of the NBA's castaways. Next season, it will be Adam Morrison, but for now, Trevor Ariza has been lights-out for the Lakers since being inserted in the starting lineup.
Many credit his first quarter dismantling of the Nuggets defense for the Lakers advancing into the NBA Finals. He plays well on the defensive end, and will match up well against Rashard Lewis, giving up a mere three inches in height. His offense will not match what Rashard can produce, but his confidence is at a new height.
Rashard Lewis: 4
Trevor Ariza: 2
They won't see much time playing against one another, but Turk does guard the weakside on the sagging man to man defense that Orlando play, which means he'll have to watch Gasol. When Odom and Bynum are in the game, Gasol sees some time against Turkoglu on various switches. This is an assessment of each player's impact on the series, and not how they are going to matchup in the individual battle so....
Offensively, Turkoglu plays anywhere from power forward to point, meaning Van Gundy's ability to use him in a variety of situations trumps Pau's game in the area of versatility. When they matchup defensively, Turkoglu can show Pau more range and may be able to beat him off the dribble.
As a low post player, Turkoglu is not as refined as Pau, although he stands a legitimate 6'10". Pau's game, down low left or right, and free throw line extended is second only to Tim Duncan's. His court vision is superb and his ability to catch any pass is sublime.
Perhaps because he spent much of his time as a center during this season's matches against Orlando, Pau's effect against the Magic was minimal at best, while Turkoglu was impressive in the two wins.
Dubbed the "Jordan of Turkey," Turkoglu's veteran experience against the Lakers (remember he is battle-tested from his Sacramento days), his ability to hit clutch shots, in addition to his ability to draw bigger players out of the paint will all make Turkoglu a tougher cover than the talented Gasol, but not by much. This forward battle goes to Turk by a nose.
Hedo Turkoglu: 4
Pau Gasol: 3
Even when Bynum was healthy, Dwight Howard dominated the Lakers.
To me, Andrew Bynum has not looked ready to compete at the highest level yet, but this is a new series.
Last year, the Lakers complained that, as a team, they lacked the interior presence Bynum is able to provide. Now they have him. The only problem is he faces the league's most dominant big man in Dwight Howard, who demolished everything the East could throw at him in this year's playoffs including Samuel Dalembert, Kendrick Perkins and Zydrunas Ilgauskas/AndersonVarejao/Ben Wallace.
I see this matchup as favoring the Magic in a big way, but I see Bynum giving Howard trouble for one key game.
Dwight Howard: 4
Andrew Bynum: 1
Shaq was wrong. Stan Van Gundy has proven himself to be an excellent motivator, a superb in-game play-caller, and second to none after timeouts.
His judgment during momentum turns and his ability to read plays is amazing given that he doesn't appear to have ever touched a basketball.
There is no panic in this man, only iron-clad determination and preeminent basketball I.Q. He would be my choice for Coach of the Year right now if voting consisted of playoff success. He has gotten the most out of his team.
I would give Stan Van Gundy this category above any coach in the Western Conference, any coach, that is, not named Phil Jackson.
The Zen Master is attempting to win his record 10th NBA Championship as a coach. He was said to have created video footage during Sacramento's brash challenge of the Shaq-led Lakers of King's point guard Jayson Williams interposed with images of Edward Norton's character from American History X, and Rick Adleman's image interposed with that of Adolf Hitler's.
How Zen Master Phil will motivate his troops with images of Stan Van Gundy sidelong images of Ron Jeremy is beyond me, but you can't argue with success. Edge goes to Phil, based on résumé.
Zen Master: 4
Ron Jeremy: 3
Despite Mickael Pietrus' solid play in the Cleveland series, I have to think that the 6'10" Odom will be more of a factor in this series than he was in the Denver series.
Based on his play in the last two games, and the fact that having the ability to place another big in the paint to facilitate offense and further stretch how much Dwight can guard, Odom will be more effective than the perimeter Pietrus.
Unlike J.R. Smith, Pietrus does not have the ability to create off the dribble, which will limit Orlando's options to perimeter offense, which L.A. has shown signs of stopping of late.
Orlando's other bench players have been serviceable as time-fillers, but provide very little on the offensive end, whereas Walton, Vujacic, and Shannon Brown can all create points. This will be a battle won by the Lakers.
L.A. Bench: 4
Orlando Bench: 2
The crowd in Orlando is undeniably tough to play against. Through and through, they are involved, as fans, in the Magic cause.
Still, the Lakers have home advantage, which is huge in the NBA Finals. The Lakers are also desperate to win a championship after having tasted the bitterness of defeat last season at the hands of the Boston Celtics. Their players and their coaches have all been here before.
In close games, I will take Kobe over Hedo, and the reffing always seems to go L.A.'s way. If all this isn't enough, the legacy of 14 championships to 0 is simply daunting.
Orlando, after upsetting Cleveland, might be "just happy to be here" and so is the clear underdog when it comes to this category.
The final tally was close, but L.A. managed to win the overall with a score of 25-23 over Orlando, largely based on the bench outplaying Orlando's and the intangibles all going to L.A.
It's not an exact science, but considering the results, I will predict a final score of 4-3 in an exciting seven-game series which nets L.A. its 15th championship and Kobe's first Finals' MVP award.
Dwight Howard will serve notice to the world that he is the new Shaq, but he will ultimately lose to the new Jordan in one of the best Finals to be played in recent memory.
Stan Van Gundy will prove that he is not a master of panic, but a master of tactic, while Phil will pass old Red for the crown of winningest coach. Pau will shake the label of "soft" and Pietrus will prove he belongs on a starting roster.
The end. Have fun watching!