It's not Ali v. Frazier.
It's not Michael v. Magic.
Hell, it may not even be Crosby v. Ovechkin.
It's Kobe v. LeBr—errrrr.... PIETRUS!
Okay, okay. Yes, Mickael Pietrus may be guarding Kobe, but the headline for this series is clearly Mr. Bryant going up against Dwight Howard and his merry men from Orlando.
Tonight, the 2009 NBA Finals kick off in Los Angeles (8:30 PM EST, ABC). And while Denzel, DiCaprio, Ice Cube and, of course, Jack will all be drawing the attention of fans off the court, those interested in seeing a Kobe-LeBron showdown have been, for the past week, lamenting in the fact that the dream showdown won't be happening this year.
Not only are LeBron fans disappointed, but so is ABC and, most likely, Mr. David Stern. Leagues like the NBA, NFL and so on pray for matchups like the potential 24 v. 23 one. It's like gearing up for Alien v. Predator for six months, only to have one of the characters replaced by a Chucky Doll.
Even those amazing- yes, let me say that once more, AMAZING- puppet commercials seem like a waste as we draw closer and closer to the tip-off for game one.
But to my average NBA fans, I say fear not. This series has a lot of potential to it. Perhaps more so than a Cleveland-Los Angeles matchup.
Let's start at square one—the shoulders of one Kobe Bryant. I'll save you the endless banter about how good he is, you don't need to hear it. But since the big Shaqtus has taken his act on the road, the Los Angeles Lakers have exactly zero NBA titles and one NBA Finals appearance.
In fact, in their last two NBA Finals appearances, the Lakers are 3-8 in the eleven games they have played. In 2004, the Lakers lost to the Detroit Pistons, four games to one, despite having nearly enough cumulative All-Star appearances on that team for every layoff General Motors has made over the past year. That year's squad started the likes of O'Neal, Bryant, Gary Payton and Karl Malone.
What people may not remember about that series is how poorly Kobe played. He shot 38 percent from the field for the series, averaging only 22.6 ppg to go along with 3.6 turnovers per contest as well.
As for Shaq, he shot 63 percent from the field and averaged 26.6 ppg, to go along with 10.8 rpg as well.
Last season, the Boston Celtics and their team approach took care of the Los Angeles Kobe's in six games. Much like the Magic showed the world in the Eastern Finals this year, it takes more than one player to take down a potential champion.
But in Los Angeles, all rules are off. Kobe is the team. Not to himself, or to his teammates—but to the millions of fans, analysts, and critics who break down each bead of sweat Kobe drops on the court.
Sure, the Cavs got away with it throughout the regular season, but that was against every NBA team, including the 14 which didn't even sniff the postseason this year.
And while I love LeBron, he's still not Kobe. Not yet, at least...
This year's NBA Finals will match up two of the deepest teams in the NBA. The Lakers will put out players like Kobe, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol, and playoff veteran Derek Fisher. For the Magic, they have three superstars- Dwight, Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu- who all bring size problems to oppositions trying to match up their players defensively.
The size that I speak of may prove to be exactly what causes the Lakers fits in the series.
While it it no secret that LA's offense runs through Bryant, the Orlando offense runs through Dwight Howard. Yes, Turkoglu and Lewis can be prolific offensively when called upon, but it all starts with the seven foot monster in the paint for the Magic.
The Lakers have started seven different groups of players over the course of the season. Statistically speaking, their most efficient starting five consisted of Fisher, Gasol, Kobe, Andrew Bynum and Vladamir Radmonovic (22-6 record when these five started).
Radmonovic is about as close to a Rashard Lewis clone as you will find on Los Angeles. Except, there's just one problem...
The Lakers traded Radmonovic to the Bobcats 46 games into the season.
(EDIT: The Lakers got Adam Morrison and Shannon Brown in return in that trade. Sorry Adam Morrison, but you're not seeing that court once this series. Hell, they may not even let you in the building. So literally, you may not see the court. But Gonzaga was fun, right?!)
At 6'10", 227 pounds, Radmonovic is a big man who can shoot the three when need be (averaged about 1.3 threes per game this season). Unlike other perimeter players, Vlady would be able to contest a shot from the 6'10" Lewis in this series had he still be on the team.
Instead, the Lakers' starting five will probably look like this:
Fisher, Bryant, Odom, Gasol, Bynum (These five started together exactly zero times this season.)
The presence of Lewis may force the Lakers to bench Trevor Ariza, who has been playing well as of late, but at 6'8" may not be able to contest jumpers as well as Odom, who measures in at 6'10".
If the Lakers start Ariza, it will be based on two deciding factors: A.) Ariza may be the best defensive player the Lakers have outside of No. 24, and B.) Lamar Odom may be known more for his laziness and lack of tenacity than anything else in his repertoire of basketball talent
(For the record, if Ariza replaces Odom in that starting five, their record this season was 4-1).
Andrew Bynum, coming off an injury earlier in the season, has played sparingly throughout the playoffs (16.9 minutes per game, 6.3 ppg, 3.6 rpg, one block per game). However, he will be called on to guard Dwight in the series.
Before we go any further—no, Bynum cannot guard Superman one-on-one.
The Lakers will have to throw a slew of double teams on Dwight down low. If Bynum can't guard him, don't even think for a second Gasol can. He is so soft, Dwight may just use him as a new cape during the series.
The biggest decision Phil Jackson will have to make is where the double team on Dwight will come from.
The Magic won both regular season meetings this year with the Lakers, but they won both games with Jameer Nelson starting at the point. However, despite reports circulating that Nelson may be planning a comeback for the Finals, he will not play in Game One. If anyone on Orlando can be guarded "lightly" at the expense of a double down low, it may be replacement PG Rafer Alston, who has average 12.7 ppg in these playoffs.
If the Lakers decide to use one of their remaining big men on the double—Gasol, Odom, or even Ariza—they will be taking a much bigger risk by giving Turk and Rashard room to roam around the court and create open shots.
You may be saying, "Well why not send Kobe down there and leave Coutrney Lee somewhat open?"
Good idea, but here's why that won't work.
We all know about the "Hack-a-Shaq" routine made famous by pounding the Big Aristotle and making him go to the line. Even if the Lakers do not resort to that method, double teaming Dwight is going to result in fouls. Lots of fouls.
They are not about to get Kobe in foul trouble by putting him on Howard. If anything, they will run their well of swingmen off the bench and let them dry themselves up in foul trouble. So don't be surprised to see guys like Luke Walton, Josh Powell and Sasha Vujacic rack up 15+ mpg in an effort to stop Dwight.
Behind all of this will be two of the best coaches in the league. Stan van Gundy—my personal choice for coach of the year—will be going up against the Zen Master, Phil Jackson. PJ is 43-0 in playoff series when winning game one, making this the 133,658th time you have heard that very stat. But it is one that cannot be ignored.
But will the Lakers have a solution for Dwight in Game One? Or will it take them a 48 minute game tape to come up with an ideal defensive strategy?
And all this talk about Howard, what about Kobe? Can Mickael Pietrus guard No. 24 (answer: NO)? And if he can't (OK, we got it, he can't guard him!! No one can! According to George Karl, Jesus couldn't. Just don't stand under a lightning cloud with GK by your side), can he slow him down enough to give the Lakers a chance?
And what shoes will he be wearing to do so??
I love those Kobe-LeBron puppets just as much as the next guy. And I would have LOVED to see the two of them go head to head in the Finals. But it won't happen this year. They both have plenty of time in the league and are good enough to, at the least, give whatever team they are on an opportunity to reach the NBA's summit.
But this series will be, in my opinion, better than a CLE-LAL matchup. The two teams just matchup better, talent wise and on paper. If the Lakers can figure out how to win Game One, Orlando is in deep trouble. But I think they will need to do just that- figure out how to win this one, despite the fact that it is in Orlando.
And if that isn't convincing enough, it's more entertaining than Game Four of the Stanley Cup Finals.
Did you know that was on tonight? Didn't think so.
Game One Prediction: Lakers 101, Magic 98.