Since 1990, the Los Angeles Lakers have won seven conference titles, including their current victory over the Denver Nuggets. Three of the six completed seasons brought an NBA championship to their franchise, all three coming in consecutive seasons.
The Orlando Magic were nothing more than an expansion team in 1990. This would mark only their second appearance in the NBA Finals, their first coming in 1995, when Shaquille O'Neal and Anfernee Hardaway led a 57-win Magic team to the promised land, only to fall to Hakeem Olajuwon's Houston Rockets in four games.
Things haven't changed too much since then. Teams dominated by a superstar, an all-star teammate and solid role players are likely to play up until, or into, the month of June, defense still gets the job done, and playoff upsets are always waiting in the wings.
Enter the 2009 Lakers and Magic.
Nearly one year removed from their upsetting loss to the Boston Celtics in the 2008 NBA Finals, Kobe Bryant and coach Phil Jackson are preparing for what could be their most important games of their careers.
Bryant, who has yet to win a title without O'Neal, and Jackson, chasing his record-setting 10th NBA championship as a head coach, have a lot to prove this time around, while the franchise is looking for redemption after losing their last two NBA Finals matchups, against the Celtics in 2008 and the Detroit Pistons in 2004.
Offensively, these Lakers are extremely dangerous from all spots on the court. They have three-point sharpshooters, slashing guards and forwards, post players, solid role and bench players, and both youth and experience.
Combined with quite possibly the most skillful basketball superstar since Michael Jordan, an excellent power forward and center combo in Pau Gasol, and arguably the best coach in NBA history, it's difficult to predict a loss for such a well-defined team.
Defensively, you have to look at the Lakers at how well they perform aside from the complacency they continue to show every once in a while. They have two exceptional perimeter defenders in Bryant and Trevor Ariza, and a good defensive guard by the name of Shannon Brown.
Outside of those three, the Lakers have Andrew Bynum, who struggles to play a significant amount of minutes due to foul trouble, and Pau Gasol, who has shown his strength rebounding the ball and blocking shots, but seems to have trouble playing physical defense against the stronger, larger forwards and centers.
This season, the Lakers were ranked sixth in opponent field goal percentage (44.7 percent), third in opponent three-point percentage (34.5 percent), first in rebounds per game (43.92), 10th in blocks per game (5.12), and second in steals per game (8.75).
The Magic may not be running a two-man system like they were with O'Neal and Hardaway in 1995, but their combination of Dwight Howard and their shooters seem to give even the best defensive team fits, as we all "witnessed" versus the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals.
One odd thing to note about Orlando is that they look to Howard not as a passing big man, but strictly a scorer and a decoy. Throughout the season, it was evident that Jameer Nelson, who may not be available for the Magic in the NBA Finals, and Hedo Turkoglu were able to run the offense literally through their shooters, penetrating and dishing to the open man, something most of their players can do.
Fortunately for the Magic, if their shooters were cold, Howard had no problem taking the game over as he did in his final game against the Cavaliers, scoring 40 points and forcing the ball through the hoop.
The best thing about Howard, though, would have to be his defense. The Boston Celtics were praised for bringing in a defensive anchor, Kevin Garnett, to help keep slashing guards and small forwards out of the paint, while keeping a thumb on his own assignment and preaching defense to the team during timeouts, in the locker room, and even on the court.
Dwight Howard has embraced this role for the Magic, and it has been one of the biggest factors in bringing them to contention this season.
In comparison to the Lakers, the Magic were third in the NBA's regular season in opponent field goal percentage (43.3 percentage), second in opponent three-point percentage (34.2 percentage), third in rebounds per game (43.25), sixth in blocks per game (5.35), and 22nd in steals per game (6.95).
A Lakers victory would have to mean that Bryant and Ariza do a superb job defending the perimeter, Bynum and Gasol assist the slashing guards and forwards in putting Dwight Howard in foul trouble in the early stages of the second and fourth quarters, and Lamar Odom plays at least two quarters contesting shots from everywhere on the court.
If Jameer Nelson plays, Derek Fisher and the other point guards will be asked to watch penetrations and to be physical with the injured Nelson, wearing him down in his limited minutes on the court, and forcing Rafer Alston to beat them from the perimeter.
In addition to their production on defense, their offense has to stay consistent, with three or more contributors: Bryant, Gasol, and a third and possibly fourth option. Gasol's effectiveness in the low post turned Denver into a confused and restless basketball team, not knowing who to double team between the offensive post threat in Gasol, and one of the most dominant offensive players in NBA history in Bryant.
Odom and Ariza could be the two asked to provide instant offense while Gasol and Bryant take their usual three or four minute breaks. Ariza shot a stellar 61 percent from the field against the Utah Jazz in the first round, and 58 percent against the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals, while Odom came up big against the Nuggets in the final two games of the series, averaging 11.5 points and nine rebounds in six games against Denver, while shooting an impressive 55.6 percent from the floor.
While nobody on the Magic will be able to shut down Bryant, the idea may be to disable the rest of the team, especially Gasol. One way to do this is by using Howard in the post.
It wouldn't be a surprise to see Rashard Lewis attacking the rim, or possibly one of the other role players, such as Mickael Pietrus, who managed to outscore the Cleveland bench all by himself in the Eastern Conference Finals, or rookie guard Courtney Lee. If Howard is struggling, it will be up to Orlando's shooters to stomp their way out of any mud they find themselves in.
Quite frankly, controlling the tempo is a must for the Magic, as they are able to hit threes out of any given scenario on the court, whether it's rushing down the floor and pulling up for one early in the shot clock, or holding onto the ball and waiting for a slight miscalculation by the Lakers' defense before firing a triple from the corner.
When it's all said and done, the series may be decided by Bryant and Howard. Kobe's trust in his teammates, and Dwight's inability to hit short jumpers and free throws, could easily factor into the ultimate test for both NBA juggernauts, Bryant looking to earn his fourth championship ring, while Howard aiming to bring home the first in Magic franchise history.
Game One of the NBA Finals starts Thursday, June 4th at 9:00 PM EST, on ABC.
To discuss every game in the series, visit OTRBasketball.com!
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