Kobe vs. LeBron. Lakers vs. Cavaliers. Los Angeles vs. Cleveland. All of those sure have a nice ring to it, don’t they?
It was the dream final that everyone was talking about. To some, it seemed inevitable. Nike already had their ad campaign going, prepping for what seemed to imminent. The basketball world was going to get what it had wanted all season long, and what our so-called experts of the sports world were predicting from the start of the playoffs.
And then, enter the Magic. They came in as the ultimate underdog. They entered the Eastern Conference Finals facing a Cavaliers team that had had a historic first two rounds, winning every game by 10 or more points en route to a pair of series sweeps. They were dominant in every facet of the word, and not many people wanted to give the Magic a chance because of that.
But boy, did they prove everyone wrong.
They beat the Cavaliers inside and out. Dwight Howard dominated and they made threes at an incredible pace. The Magic made LeBron James beat them by himself, shutting down the other 11 guys on that team on an every game basis. And no matter how brilliant James played, it wasn’t going to matter. The Magic took the series 4-2, and it could have easily been won in four games, if not for a miracle three by James in the closing second of game two.
In many ways, this series was reminiscent of how the Cavaliers season went. They beat up on the teams they were supposed to (the Atlanta Hawks and Detroit Pistons) and struggled against the leagues elite. On the season, they went 3-6 against the Magic, Lakers and Celtics. After losing to the Magic in six games, their record dropped to 5-10.
5-10 is not a record you would expect an elite team to have against their other elite opponents. It’s not a record you would expect a championship contender to have. It’s a record you expect the lower playoff teams and higher lottery seeds to have.
Looking at this, you have to wonder if the dream final of Kobe vs. LeBron would have been a dream or a nightmare. The Lakers won both regular season match-ups handily, including one without starting center Andrew Bynum.
The Lakers would have created mismatches at a plethora of positions for the Cavaliers as well. Sure, the Lakers wouldn’t really have a guy who could match up physically with James, but they didn’t need to in the regular season match-ups. In their two match-ups, the Lakers held James to just 19.5 points per game, 31% shooting (14/45 on field goal attempts) and 23% shooting from three-point range (3/13 on three point attempts). All of these numbers are well below his season average.
The other problem the Cavaliers would have had is stopping the Lakers plethora of other weapons. The Lakers are not a one trick pony anymore. Pau Gasol averaged better than 19 points and 9 rebounds per game on the season, giving Kobe a more than viable second option. They also have Trevor Ariza making his coming out party in the playoffs, averaging better than 11 points per game and shooting about 50% from three-point range. And we haven’t even mentioned Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum and the Lakers potent bench.
So while the match-up was a dream for fans and media alike, one must wonder how much of a dream it might have been for the Cavaliers. While it would have been nice to see them there, playing against Bryant, Gasol and the Lakers, it might not have been much of a match-up.
Even though the NBA didn’t get what it wanted, it does have one thing it can take out of all this: the NBA got the best match-up it could have. While Orlando vs. Los Angeles doesn’t look nearly as sexy as Lakers vs. Cavaliers and Kobe vs. LeBron, it’ll certainly be the more compelling and more competitive series than Lakers vs. Cavaliers would have been.