The Orlando Magic made two essential adjustments in their 108-104 Game Three victory over the Los Angeles Lakers that may have saved their season.
On the very first possession, the Magic employed a series of weak side curls leading to Hedo Turkoglu opening up and feeding Dwight Howard on the left block. Howard posted Andrew Bynum, Trevor Ariza helped, the ball was kicked out to Turkoglu at the wing and Turkoglu missed a three.
Aside from that possession, rarely if ever was Howard asked to initiate the offense from either block.
Instead, the Magic went back to what they do best—high screen/roll basketball with shooters in either corner and the power forward dragging behind the screen.
This way, Howard received the majority of his touches rolling to the basket where he was able to seal Andrew Bynum or Pau Gasol in deep position to catch and finish. With this reversion to lessening Howard’s responsibilities, he had his usual quota of points and rebounds—5-6 FG, 11-16 FT, 14 REB, 21 PTS—without the turnovers (one) that plagued him in Los Angeles.
Furthermore, with Howard stationed in the low block, he was often a sitting duck for the Lakers defense to overmatch. Would they double off the player making the entry pass? From the weak-side wing? From the baseline? Would they play single coverage?
Plus the Magic often reverted to a stand around and wait team as opposed to the active cutting, flashing, screen/rolling team they were in the regular season.
With the Magic rediscovering their screen/roll game, they put much more pressure on the Lakers to react to them as opposed to them reacting to the Lakers’ defense.
Secondly, over the first two games of the series, Turkoglu would often drive to pass instead of primarily driving to score. This allowed the Lakers rotations to be softer and closer to their assignments.
In Game Three, Turkoglu was much more aggressive in taking the ball to the paint and either shooting, or executing his clever up-fakes to draw fouls. With Turkoglu much more determined on attacking into the paint, the Lakers had to honor his drives and help, leaving shooters open, specifically the power forward dragging back to the wing behind the screen.
It should be noted that the Magic screen/roll game was much more effective due to the referees calling more fouls on tight defensive pressure behind the three-point line, forcing the Lakers to play a bit softer.
Also, Turkoglu did a better job of driving his defender (usually Trevor Ariza) into screens, while Howard did a better job of setting them. And on the occasion when the screen/was denied, Turkoglu would simply go left and try to get to the rim or uncork his step back jumpers.
From there on, it was just a matter of whether or not the Magic supporting cast would respond. And unlike the initial two games, the supporting cast came up huge.
Rashard Lewis proved big early (ten first half points) and late (a huge jump shot with a minute left that extended the Magic lead to three). As in Game Two, he warmed up in the post hitting a pair of nifty jumpers over Pau Gasol, and his three-point shooting followed suit.
Rafer Alston finally reappeared. After he forced a pair of shots and even more passes—why would you throw a lob to a player 14 feet from the basket with a defender between him, as he did early in the third stanza—he compensated by doing a great job of pushing the ball in transition, allowing the Magic to enter their offense before the Lakers could set.
When asked to score, Alston—8-12 FG, 1-1 3FG, 3-4 FT, 4 AST, 3 TO—20 PTS—converted multiple tricky layups around the outstretched arms of the Lakers defenders, and plugged his jumpers.
Courtney Lee waited for opportunities on offense, knocking down a jump shot with Gasol switched on him, and slamming home a powerful baseline dunk with the Lakers caught in rotation.
If Mickael Pietrus couldn’t nail his threes—0-3 3FG—he attacked the basket with aplomb after poor Lakers closeouts, and posted up twice for two made baskets.
Tony Battie got the majority of time over Marcin Gortat and plugged a pair of jumpers dragging behind screen/rolls.
Jameer Nelson’s form was much better on the one shot he attempted in Game Three, as opposed to the short-armed lurches he hoisted up in Los Angeles.
With Turkoglu and the Magic screen/rolling along, they wound up with a feast of open shots, which they converted into a 63 percent field goal percentage.
Of course it helped that the Lakers were completely disinclined into playing disciplined defense. Nearly all of the Lakers close outs were poor ones, allowing Alston and Lewis to pump-fake, show the ball, and step into either a gaping lane to the basket or a closer jump shot.
Kobe Bryant and Lamar Odom were the prime culprits of those misdeeds.
It also helped that because the Lakers were so concerned with keeping a body on Howard on the defensive boards, that their big guys refused to step up on numerous layup attempts. As a result, Howard only garnered two defensive rebounds (of Orlando’s five), but the rest of the Magic found the going easier than usual at the rim.
Still, not everything was magical for Orlando’s offense. Howard still has a habit of dribbling in place too often before going up strong, allowing throngs of defenders to swarm him and alter his shots. Also, he brings the ball down way too often allowing smaller mortals to hack and rip at the ball, causing stripped balls and blocked shots at worst, and shooting fouls that should be three-point-plays at best.
Also, the Magic guards still forced too many drives and passes into spaces that didn’t exist.
But all-in-all, Orlando’s offense pulled a rabbit out of its hat back in the Magic Kingdom.
The Lakers offense also hummed along.
Bryant proved to be the miracle man early, hitting shots in positions Houdini wouldn’t dare try to escape from, with his most daring act an incredible step-back, pump fake, off-balance three pointer with Pietrus crashing into him. Kobe had 17 first quarter points and three assists.
He simply toyed with Pietrus and Lee like marionettes on a string, coaxing the duo into the air no less than four times with exceptionally convincing pump fakes. And when they stayed down, Bryant would rise and fire over them with big-time jumpers.
Gasol—9-11 FG—undressed Lewis in the post, and was able to spin and shoot a number of complicated turnarounds off the dribble over Howard. Why he wasn’t involved more is anyone’s guess.
Derek Fisher did nothing to diminish his reputation as a big-stage shooter and decision-maker—4-9 FG, 2 AST, 0 TO.
Jordan Farmar—4-6 FG—hit a pair of running bankers, and befuddled Nelson around screens.
Odom carried the Lakers late with eight fourth-quarter points.
Nearly all of the Lakers success in the fourth quarter came when attacking Turkoglu’s porous defense. At times, Odom would post him up or beat him to the rim on baseline cuts, Trevor Ariza would shoot over him with him too far off to contest, Gasol would post him up, and Odom would post Lewis in the right block with Turkoglu unwilling to sag off the corner and discourage a topside entry pass.
However, the Lakers offensive efforts to come back and capture Game Three failed because of an uncharacteristic choke job by Bryant.
Aside from his poor closeout defense, Kobe missed half of the 10 free throws he attempted, including three of seven in the second half. And while Bryant made great decisions and passes while reading the Magic showing on his screens and leaving the opposite wing uncovered, Kobe missed four of five jumpers until a meaningless put back with under a second in the game.
In general, the Lakers free-throw shooting was dreadful—16 for 26.
Odom was great late, but was invisible until the fourth quarter.
Bynum simply has no lift in his legs. Among his misadventures were a 12-foot air-balled hook, and a 12-foot jumper that was blocked straightaway by Howard.
In only three minutes of action, Sasha Vujacic still managed to embarrass himself by missing a wide open 18-footer, and committing a foul 35 feet from the hoop.
And with the Lakers getting so few stops, their opportunities to run into easy points were few and far between.
Basically the Lakers played lazy defense and appeared completely unprepared for Orlando’s screen/roll offense, and by the athleticism of Orlando attacking off the dribble. And Kobe couldn’t save them.
And speaking of poor performances, it’s a wonder why the inept Joe Crawford is working basketball games with as much magnitude as the Finals. Among his missed calls, the majority were right in front of his face:
- Neither calling an obvious double-dribble on Pietrus, nor a foul on Farmar on a transition convergence of the two players.
- Calling a foul on Odom only after a Dwight Howard layup rolled off the rim.
- Awarding the ball to the Magic after it clearly went off Odom’s leg.
- Not calling a foul on Lee for having his hand on Bryant’s hip 30 feet from the basket.
- Calling a phantom foul on Howard after a Bryant drive.
- Calling an imaginary foul on Pietrus after Kobe split a double team with Pietrus’ hands to himself.
I’ll rarely call out an official for a few missed calls because I understand the difficulty and subjectivity referees must deal with. And like a superstar player missing a few shots, even the best referees are prone to missing a few calls.
But the sheer obviousness of the calls Crawford missed (and has missed) often border on incompetence. If an average missed call is akin to a missed jumper, then Crawford missed five or six layups—a shame considering how the ultimate series, involving the ultimate teams, is being judged by such an inadequate referee.
Why aren’t Steve Javie, Bennett Salvatore, and Derrick Stafford assigned to every game of The Finals as opposed to splitting their work with incompetents like Crawford?
Perhaps the officiating in Game Four will be better. Perhaps the Lakers will bother to play championship-level defense. Perhaps Howard will learn to keep the ball high all the time, every time. Or perhaps NBA fans will continue to wonder, is this really the best the league has to offer?