The puppet show is over, but don’t tell Dwight Howard that—he’ll soon be in puppet lore if he has his way.
In short, the ads were thinly-veiled in their preference for a Kobe-LeBron finals, and Howard wasn’t pleased, saying him and the team used them as motivation to knock off the heavily-favoured Cavs.
“Every time I look at TV, it seems like that’s all anybody is talking about (a Lakers-Cavaliers finals). It’s like nobody is even giving us a shot at winning this series and we’ve used it as motivation,” he said in his blog after Game 3.
Fast-forward to last Saturday’s Game 6, in which the Magic delivered the knockout blow, completing the shocking upset of the heavily-favoured, 66-16 Cavs.
Or was it really shocking? This is the same Magic team that dismantled the defending-champion Celtics in the second round—albeit without Kevin Garnett and backup centre Leon Powe—in one of the toughest places in the league to play a Game Seven.
OK, but the Magic lost starting point guard Jameer Nelson for the season in February (though he may yet try to play in the finals), and weren’t exactly playoff battle-tested like the more veteran Cavs and Celtics.
And signing Rafer Alson, who has a bit of a spotty history with both on- and off-court issues, wasn’t a sure-fire way to plug the hole.
But plug it he did as the mercenary point guard, helping to feed the three-point blitzkrieg that has produced the unlikeliest (or very likely, however you view it) finalist out of the East, based on the road the Magic had to take.
As for the Lakers, this finals business is becoming old hat. It’s the 30th time in 61 years of existence that L.A. will represent the West at the dance, including Bryant’s sixth and coach Phil Jackson’s 12th.
The six-game defeat in the finals to the Celtics last year has left Kobe and co. with a bad taste in their mouths, and added even more experience to a category where they edge the Magic.
In oddly similar circumstances to the Magic in Round 2, the Lakers defeated a stronger-than-expected Rockets squad that was missing Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady.
The third round had many picking the upstart Nuggets, older and wiser with the acquisition of veteran guard Chauncey Billups—but again, experience had the edge in a decisive Game 6.
So let’s break it all down.
Whether Jameer Nelson risks injury, and frankly, upsetting team chemistry by attempting a return, Rafer Alston has done an impeccable job in his absence with excellent shot selection and passing ability.
These passes have more often than not found some open and deadly three-point shooters, which have been the difference in getting the Magic this far.
He and solid backup Anthony Johnson face veteran starter Derek Fisher, who has struggled at times this postseason and is no longer the Lakers’ clutch option as in the past.
However, backup Jordan Farmar has last year’s finals experience under his belt, and deadline acquisition Shannon Brown has impressed, averaging over 14 minutes off the bench.
Brown is also facing off-court issues in the wake of a civil suit filed against him by a Denver woman in an alleged Jan. 30 sex incident.
Will Brown’s possible distraction and Fisher’s struggles impede the Magic quarterbacks?
Mickael Pietrus was trusted with defending LeBron James and Ray Allen the past two playoff series, while saving enough energy to be a clutch offensive performer on the other end.
The only other player who can match this intensity is…Kobe Bryant, who he will likely guard. This promises to be the most exciting matchup of the series, which Bryant will likely win.
Sasha Vujacic will duke it out for backup glory with Courtney Lee, whose production has slipped from 12.1 points per game in the opening round to just over eight, but is still solid.
ADVANTAGE: Lakers—Kobe’s position, enough said.
Intrigue reins supreme here. Hedo Turkoglu is a former Sacramento King who is familiar with a good slugfest vs. the Lakers, after his Kings lost a memorable yet heartbreaking seven-game Western finals in 2002.
The sleepy-eyed, deadly outside-shooting Turkoglu faces the unheralded Trevor Ariza, who has shot a blazing-hot 50 percent (30-60) from three-point land in the postseason, and made similar game-saving steals off of inbounds passes in two separate games in the Western finals vs. Denver. His ability to guard Turkoglu is one of the big x-factors in the finals.
Reserve Luke Walton won’t see much playing time with these two in the way.
ADVANTAGE: Magic, by a hair.
The series may just be won or lost at this position. Rashard Lewis, the $118 million-dollar man, earned his keep and made mincemeat of the Cavs and Celtics with his clutch outside shooting, but also packs mean lateral quickness. This might be the difference in beating an injured Lamar Odom to loose balls and rebounds, not to mention guarding him.
Pau Gasol will be the lynch pin, and will take be reliable for his offense. Defensively? A definite question mark. Will he come over to double Lewis and risk leaving Howard open underneath?
Not much needs to be said here, as no one on the Lakers roster can effectively contain Howard without fouling him. As long as Superman makes his freebies, there’s no contest in the middle. Sorry, Andrew Bynum.
ADVANTAGE: Magic, by a mile.
The Magic have had an impressive run to the finals, but the Lakers have been here before and have home court advantage for the latest edition of Showtime.
Preparation is everything, but once the Magic players see the Larry O’Brien trophy logo stitched onto their jerseys and emblazoned on the floor, or Jack Nicholson and the rest of Hollywood watching, or the media scrutiny, the learning curve becomes steeper.
The only way to find out is to be thrown in the fire, and see whether the headlights blind these deer.
The dishevelled and erratic Stan Van Gundy might be the most underrated bench boss in the NBA, and it seems he’s compared more often to a certain adult film star rather than his coaching peers.
Even Dwight Howard can’t resist poking a little fun at his bench boss—YouTube his dead-on impression, which might have you in stitches. It’s Van Gundy’s chance to prove himself on the biggest of stages, and recent history have us believe he’ll do just fine.
On the other end is nine-time champion Phil Jackson, gunning to break the tie with the late, cigar-chomping Red Auerbach for most titles as a coach.
The President’s crystal ball predicts the following:
Game 1: Magic grab an early lead and manage to survive a late Laker charge. Magic by five.
Game 2: Kobe rises to the occasion and helps tie the series. Lakers by 10.
Game 3: Magic ride a raucous Amway Arena crowd to a 13-point victory.
Game 4: Magic slug it out by three in a much closer, see-saw affair.
Game 5: Lakers steal momentum back with a four-point win.
Game 6: Lakers pull away in the fourth and give Jack and co. a 10-point victory.
Game 7: In a battle for the ages, the enemy Superman gets a triple-double in a five-point stunning road victory, and the first NBA championship for Disney country.