Fate may have decided that Kobe Bryant and LeBron James were too similar for the NBA Finals.
Two MVPs, two Nike/Vitamin Water guys, two apples from the same tree, leading their teams in like fashion, was too much for some to bear.
Science teaches us that opposites charges attract and like charges repel.
Their differences are obvious, from the star players to the coaches, their styles of play, and even their paths to the championship.
But now the teams have reached the end of their collision course and the world is eager to see which team will walk away from the wreckage.
On one side, there’s the joy of Dwight Howard as Superman plays with the heart of a champion, a ubiquitous smile on his face.
Forgive the ultra-competitive Bryant for not laughing when he receives a foul.
On the other side, Bryant’s will to win and his preparation habits are well-documented; Spike Lee's documentary Kobe Doin’ Work featured Bryant as a man obsessed with the intricacies of the game.
Please excuse Howard for keeping perspective while playing a game that earns him millions of dollars and has little consequence to the global economy or the many other challenges facing our world.
While Howard had a grand time competing in a dancing contest versus Shaquille O’Neal at the All-Star game, Bryant can often be seen admonishing his team on national television.
Howard’s carefree approach resulted in the elimination of the best team in the NBA (according to their 66-16 record, anyway) and the mega-hyped LeBron James.
Howard remained calm versus the player most had already anointed as one of the best ever, turning in his best game of the postseason and sending his team to the Finals.
Bryant’s desire and motivation seemed to eclipse that of any of the Nuggets in Game Six of the Western Conference Finals.
With Game Seven scheduled at home in Los Angeles, Bryant instinctively refused to concede anything to Denver, quickly pouncing on the opportunity to defeat the Nuggets in Denver and send the Lakers back to the Finals.
Superman meets the Black Mamba.
Both coaches worked with Shaquille O’Neal. The similarities probably end there.
Players have to respect Phil Jackson; he’s one of the greatest coaches in NBA history, winning nine championships in his 18 years as a head coach. Jackson played forward in the NBA for 12 seasons, winning the championship in 1970 (injured) and ’73.
Stan Van Gundy has had to earn his players’ respect as a longtime assistant to Pat Riley in Miami and as a head coach. He didn’t play in the NBA and hasn’t won a championship as a coach.
Van Gundy enjoys Florida and has spent his entire NBA career in the Sunshine State, passing up some opportunities and having others taken from him.
He was hired as Miami’s head coach in 2003, only to see Riley steal his job during the Heat’s run to the 2006 title. Orlando only signed Van Gundy in 2007 after being rebuffed by the University of Florida’s Billy Donovan, who reneged on his agreement to coach the Magic.
In his time as a head coach, Van Gundy has earned a reputation as Mr. Fix-It. In four-and-a-half seasons, his teams have improved their records every year. He inherited a Miami team that lost 57 games the previous season and quickly took the team to the second round of the playoffs.
Jackson doesn't have to worry about fixer-uppers. He's known for his good fortune. He played alongside six Hall of Famers and had the good fortune of coaching Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, and Bryant.
Jackson’s teams have made the playoffs every year he’s been the head coach.
His triangle offense is perfect for a team with a superstar perimeter player, while Van Gundy’s Magic expertly utilize the pick-and-roll.
The Zen Master is expected to win the title after faltering last season. The man O’Neal labeled “The Master of Panic” wasn’t even supposed to be here.
Regardless of the situation, expect a staid Jackson on the Lakers bench and an animated Van Gundy on Orlando’s side.
Styles of Play
Bryant, Derek Fisher, Trevor Ariza, and Andrew Bynum have been assessed flagrant fouls, with Bynum and Ariza receiving multiple flagrant fouls. Fisher was suspended after leveling Luis Scola of the Houston Rockets.
Bryant and Howard each have five technical fouls during the playoffs. Don't expect much arguing from either player; neither team can afford to lose its star.
Though the Magic lost Howard and Rafer Alston to suspensions for flagrant fouls this postseason, they haven’t been quite as physical as the Lakers.
The Magic rely on the pick-and-roll and three-point shooting to win games. Howard often finds wide-open teammates when he’s double-teamed, and the Magic have a bevy of players with three-point range.
However, if the Magic are in a bind, the team can go to Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu, two versatile players that can score in a variety of ways.
The Lakers are led by Bryant and his scoring ability but have a balanced offense with Pau Gasol, a seven-footer with a good post game, and Lamar Odom, who’s the Lakers’ most versatile player.
The Magic will try to exploit the Lakers at the forward position where they have options, with Lewis and Turkoglu able to shoot the three, drive to the basket, post up smaller players, or find open teammates.
The Lakers will use Gasol’s offensive prowess to try to draw early fouls on Howard and use Bynum to frustrate Howard on the defensive end.
Courtney Lee will probably start, but Van Gundy may use Mickael Pietrus to try to slow down Bryant.
Path to the Championship
The Los Angeles Lakers employed a little geometry on their way to the Finals: The quickest path from Point A to Point B is a straight line.
After losing to the Boston Celtics in six games last year (Point A), the Lakers are back in the Finals (Point B). The team followed protocol by claiming the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference and arriving to the championship round as scheduled.
The Magic exercised one of life’s best lessons on its way to the Finals: Enjoy the journey.
The Magic arrived in the Finals via an enjoyable, albeit unconventional course that included several obstacles, including the suspension of its best player in a Game Six clincher against the Philadelphia 76ers, dethroning the Boston Celtics on the road, and steamrolling the NBA’s MVP, LeBron James, and his Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Lakers made reservations for the 2009 Finals as soon as the last second ran off the clock in the 2008 Finals. Anything short of a championship will be another disappointment for the Lakers and their fans.
The Magic and their fans are ecstatic in celebrating the team’s first appearance in the Finals since 1995. The Magic is Orlando’s only major professional sports team, and the city has rallied behind the team in its quest for a championship.
Two teams, different in almost every way, sharing a determination to win it all.