Tomorrow night in L.A. the NBA Finals begin with the Lakers taking on the Magic.
This is why the players practice twice a day in the summer. This is why they shoot a thousand shots a day. This is why they watch film like Siskle and Ebert. This is why they take those grueling ice baths.
All to have the chance to win an elusive NBA title.
There are always many questions to be answered heading into any series.
Which player will dominate? Which bench has the advantage? Who are the X-Factors? Who would you want to coach your team?
I'm going to do my best to answer some of these questions. You may agree completely or you may disagree completely. That's fine.
The Black Mamba vs Superman - Kobe vs Dwight :
Comparing these two superstars is similar to comparing apples and oranges. They are totally different players and play completely different roles in order for their teams to win.
Kobe Bryant - Kobe is the scorer and play maker for the Lakers. He can do it all. If they need him to score, he can score better than any player in the NBA. If they need him to be a facilitator, he can do that too.
I believe Kobe and the Lakers are at their best when he has a balanced stat sheet. Their team runs better when he has games like 25 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists.
A line like that is an opposing team's nightmare.
On the opposite end, Kobe and the Lakers tend to struggle when he takes a lot of shots. If the Magic can keep him to a stat line of, say 34 points on 25 shots, they will be in business.
Dwight Howard - Dwight is completely different than Kobe. Where Kobe has the ball in his hands all the time, Dwight is on the block, getting the ball from his teammates.
Dwight dominates the game in more ways than just scoring. He is the reigning Defensive Player Of The Year. He imposes his will in the paint on defense, not just blocking shots, but altering many of them.
He is a true "window cleaner" when it comes to rebounding the basketball. He uses his athletic gifts to sky over the opposition and grab the majority of the rebounds.
If the Lakers can't contain him on the offensive glass, they will be in a world of hurt.
On the offensive end, his game is still a work in progress. He is more than capable of putting up big scoring games, but more times than not, he tends to be in the 15-22 point range, whereas Kobe is usually 25 points plus.
Luckily for the Magic however, Dwight has been knocking down his free throws. Previously his biggest weakness, he has been great lately from the stripe. Especially in crunch time.
The "Hack-A-Dwight" method can still work, just not as well as it used too.
A key stat to note, the Magic are undefeated in the postseason when Howard has 33 or more touches.
Defending The Key Offensive Player :
Both teams will have their work cut out for them when it comes to guarding the opponents key player.
Kobe Bryant - For the Magic, they go from game planning to stop LeBron James, to doing it for Kobe Bryant.
Both are considered the top two players in the NBA. However, their games are completely different from one another.
While LeBron dominates the ball as the Cavaliers main ball handler and penetrates to the hoop with reckless abandon. Kobe does it from the perimeter, often posting up his defender.
The Magic used Mickael Pietrus against LeBron in the Eastern Conference Finals and had decent success. Sure, his numbers were nothing short of ridiculous. Still, Pietrus did his job and stayed in close contact with LeBron, causing key turnovers in big spots.
They will use him again against Kobe. Aside from him, they will also use Courtney Lee. Both players have their work cut out for them. Kobe is a master at using his body to create space from the post and get good shots.
Where the Magic wanted LeBron to shoot jumpers, Kobe will rip their hearts out and eat them if you allow him to shoot jumpers.
A key stat to note, the Magic are nine and zero when allowing 90 points or less this postseason.
Hedo Turkoglu - I know a lot of you expected me to write Dwight Howard here as the Magic's main offensive player. Well, he's not their main offensive player.
Nope. Hedo Turkoglu is.
On paper, Rafer Alston is the Magic's point guard. That's where it ends. Hedo is the Magic's main ball handler once the ball gets over the half court line. He runs their offense and creates for his teammates.
If you learned anything by watching the Eastern Conference Finals, it was that the Orlando Magic run the high pick and roll as good, if not better, than any team in the NBA. If the Lakers are going to win this series, they are going to have to come up with an answer to this problem. An answer that the Cavs couldn't find in six games.
If you go under the pick, Hedo will step back and bury the jump shot. If you go over it, Dwight will drive to the basket. At that point, you can either rotate toward Dwight, which leaves the three point shooters wide open. If you don't rotate quick enough, Dwight will get a highlight slam.
It's basically pick your poison with them.
Luckily for the Lakers, they have solid defenders in multiple positions, something the Cavs didn't have. They have Ariza for Hedo, Kobe for Lee/Pietrus and Odom for Rashard Lewis. This is going to be huge for the Lakers.
The pick and roll is the Magic's bread and butter. It will be successful in this series. The question is, how successful?
Bench Play : Bench play is huge in any series. Last series for the Magic, they absolutely dominated in this category. Mickael Pietrus outscored the Cleveland bench by himself for the entire series.
This won't be the same in the Finals. The Lakers have the edge in this series.
From top to bottom, the Lakers had the deepest team in the NBA. Lamar Odom will be coming off the bench. Odom would start on 99 percent of the teams in the NBA, but on the Lakers he doesn't.
After Odom, they run Luke Walton, Sasha Vujacic and new found gold, Shannon Brown out. Luke and Sasha were both contributors on last years Finals team. They each gained a ton of experience from that and I expect them to play much better this year.
Brown was considered a "salary throw-in" for the deal with Charlotte that brought Adam Morrison in exchange of Vladimir Radmanovic. Morrison was supposed to be the key returning piece.
Well, Morrison has been in a suit for the entire postseason, while Brown has been playing big-time minutes and contributing. He was huge in the Western Conference Finals vs. Denver and could be equally huge in this series.
The Magics bench is a little more inconsistent.
While Mickael Pietrus is a stud and has starter talent, after that there are more questions than answers.
Marcin Gortat is the Magic's backup center. He is an extremely solid back up. He has good hands, can defend, can rebound and has some scoring ability.
He and Pietrus are easily their two best bench players.
J.J. Reddick had a huge second round against the Celtics, but was completely absent versus Cleveland, playing a few spot minutes in mainly garbage time. Anthony Johnson is a veteran point guard, but at this point of his career, he is hit or miss. Tony Battie is another big man off the Magic bench. However, when he's in the game he's most likely going to be matched up against Odom and that is nothing short of a matchup nightmare.
For the Magic bench to stay with the Lakers bench, I believe they will have to shorten their rotation a bit. I think if they can shorten it to Pietrus, Gortat, and one of those other players, it would the Lakers would have less to expose.
The "X-Factors" : There are two X-Factors for me in this series—Lamar Odom and Hedo Turkoglu.
If you want to know why I say these two players, all you have to do is look at their respective numbers, in their teams' wins and losses.
In Laker wins, Lamar has averages of 13.4 PPG, 9.6 RPG and 2.3 APG. In their losses, his numbers dip down too 9.2 PPG, 9.3 RPG and 1.7 APG. The rebounds are pretty similar in each, but the points are 4.2 PPG higher in wins than losses.
That's a big difference.
For Turkoglu, it's very similar.
In Magic wins his numbers are 14.8 PPG, 5.3 RPG and 5.3 APG. In the Magic losses, his numbers are 14.3 PPG, 3.8 RPG and 3.9 APG. The points may only be a half point less in losses, but it's the assists that are 1.5 per game lower in the losses.
Hedo is at his best when he is facilitating for the Magic. While 1.5 APG may not seem like a lot, in the playoffs, that can be the difference in winning and losing.
Whichever of these two stars plays better for the entire series, I believe their team will win the NBA title.
I saved the best key for last...
Jameer Nelson : Remember him? The guy who made the All-Star game before his shoulder injury. The guy who was averaging 16.7 PPG, 3.5 RPG and 5.4 APG when he went down. The guy who absolutely destroyed the Lakers in the regular season at a clip of 27.5 PPG in their two meetings.
Yes, that Jameer Nelson.
Well, rumors have it that he may be pulling his own version of Willis Reed and return for Game One tomorrow night.
This truly would be short of miraculous. When he tore his labrum in his shoulder in February, he was said to be out for the remainder of the season, including the playoffs, after the surgery was over.
Then the news came out shortly after the Magic advanced to the finals, that Nelson was going to try and play.
I don't know about you, but I was shocked when I saw this.
As of the time of this writing, he had participated twice in full practices. His teammates are saying they expect him to play. Coach Van Gundy says he will be a game-time decision. Magic GM Otis Smith says there is a a "very smidgen" chance that he'll play.
Based on those comments it's really up in the air on whether or not he'll play. Based on the facts, he's a game-time decision.
Will he return in his All-Star form? Of course not.
However, in 12-20 minutes a night, he can make a positive impact on the court. As the series progresses, he will get closer to his old self. If the series goes to, say six or seven games, he could be playing 25 minutes a night at that point.
The bottom line is that it's a win/win situation. If he plays well, so be it. If he comes out in his first game and plays poorly, again, so be it. The Magic won't allow him to play if they feel he's going to hurt their team.
This is the biggest key to keep your eye on heading in to tomorrow night's Game One.
Is this the Finals matchup that the NBA office and their fans wanted to see first? Probably not.
However, this is still a great matchup. It still contains two of the biggest superstars in the league. It has enough story lines to make it interesting.
In the end, I am an NBA fan. I like the NBA for the NBA itself, not just their great players. So for that reason, when nine o'clock eastern rolls around, you will find me sitting on my couch, Coke in one hand, some snack in the other.