Finally, the 2008-2009 NBA Finals are upon us and what a ride it has been so far. From the West, you have the Los Angeles Lakers, almost everyone's favorite to come out of the west, the regular season western conference top seed finishing with an impressive 65-17 record.
On the other side, you have the Orlando Magic, a team twice written off by the vast majority of analysts in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals and Finals, earning their berth with victories over the defending champions and the best regular season team, thereby debunking the conspiracy theories that LeBron versus Kobe was premeditated.
While the answer to the LeBron or Kobe debate that launched a thousand columns will not be effectively answered this finals, drama and intrigue is no less lacking.
Both teams had looked sluggish at times, especially in their respective conference semi-finals but in the conference finals, both teams really turned it on, earning their stripes. Now, with the two best teams left standing, who will prevail?
If the regular season records are any indication, the Magic have the clear edge, sweeping the Lakers 2-0. Then again, the same could be said about the Charlotte Bobcats and no one would put serious money on the Bobcats beating the Lakers in a seven game series.
Without further ado, here are the advantages each team has:
1) They have the better center and it's not even close
This is not close. Andrew Bynum was supposed to be the heir of the Mikan-Chamberlain-Kareem-O'Neal lineage. He may well be but he has yet to assert his claim.
Since the playoffs started, his most prominent statistic is personal foul(s). Playing minutes closer to Luke Walton's rather than Pau Gasol's you have to squint to examine his impact on the box score.
Dwight Howard on the other hand has been for lack of a better description—super. A consistent 20-10 threat every night, he proves why he is the Defensive Player of the Year and punishes the Varejao-Wallace-Illglauskaus triumvirate, capping a stellar series with a 40 points performance in Game Six.
With his rare combination of athleticism and size, he is fast becoming the best two way big in the league.
2) The Magic's three point shooting against the Lakers' three point defense
The Magic are the best three point shooting team during the regular season, dropping 10.0 treys a game on 38 percent shooting from beyond the arc. In contrast, the Lakers are among the worst team in defending the long range bomb, ranking 24th with 7.1 3 pointers allowed per game at 34 percent accuracy.
This on paper plays into the Magic hands with Rashard Lewis, Hedo Turkgulo, Courtney Lee, Mickael Pietrus and even Rafer Alston, all willing and able shooters. Their simple strategy, go inside with Dwight and bombs away with everyone else.
This strategy in particular exposed the Cavs who gave up a whooping 10.3 3 pts per game on 40.8 percent shooting.
3) Derek Fisher is on his last basketball legs
Make no mistake, Fish is loved in and out of the Lakers locker room and probably everywhere other than Utah but it is painful to watch speedy point guards blow by him.
With his three point shooting percentage plunging from a stellar 39.7 percent in the regular season to an abysmal 23.5 percent in the postseason, he is becoming a huge liability for the Lakers.
In the series against Houston, he compounded his complete inability to guard Aaron Brooks who averaged 18.0 ppg against him by averaging 5.3 ppg and a disastrous 1-15 from beyond the arc.
In contrast, Rafer Alston has a mini-rejuvenation of sorts, averaging 12.7 ppg and 4.4 apg on 35.1 percent shooting from beyond the arc. If Jameer Nelson comes back as rumored and plays like he did before his injury, the Lakers will have their hands full.
4) Rashard Lewis a matchup nightmare for almost every team
Probably none more so than the Cavaliers. It is hard to flop when the player you are guarding is shooting rather than driving to the rim (yes I am looking you, Varejao).
A 6-10 power forward who is a career 39.1 percent three point shooter and can drive and handle the ball is never an easy matchup for most fours not named Kevin Garnett who lack the lateral quickness to stay with him.
Against Big Ben and Varejao, Rashard had a field day shooting a unbelievable 48.4 percent from beyond the arc and making 2.5 three pointers per game. More so than any other position, Rashard Lewis is the key to the Magic's championship aspirations.
5) The Magic have proven the doubters wrong, twice
Regardless of how the Finals pan out, the Magic have reason to feel proud of themselves, dethroning the champs and the King in one post-season. Even when they held the best overall record in the league, they were widely considered to be the fourth ranked team.
Now that they have beaten two of the trio, it is time to stop underestimating the Magic. If you were to add an asterisk beside their series victory over the Celtics for Garnett's injury, Nelson's injury should largely equalize that.
If they can keep the core of this team together (*wink Turkgulo) they will be even better next season will Jameer Nelson back from injury.
The Lakers' advantage
1) They don't need Bynum to be Dwight Howard
Just Kendrick Perkins will do, the same goon who gave Gasol fits in last year's finals. Perkins may not be a lot of things, but he is the only center to effectively guard Howard one on one this postseason. That Bynum can do, provided he stays on court long enough.
In Game Six against the Nuggets, he may have been yanked to the bench but while he was on court, he gave Nene, Anthony and Martin motivation to work on their jumper.
With his size and strength, all Bynum needs to do is keep Howard busy. He does not need to score much, just muscle Howard away from helping Lewis defensively and make him work for his points. If he can draw a couple of fouls from Superman, all the better but the Lakers do not need Bynum to have a 20-10 game to win.
2) The Lakers are a matchup nightmare for Rashard Lewis as well
If advantage 1) is established, then this is a breeze. Rashard Lewis was so effective against the Cavs because he only needed to give Varejao and Big Ben minimal attention on defensive end. Not so with Gasol and Odom.
When Gasol plays at the four, his intelligence and versatile skills will exploit Lewis' limitations. If Howard comes over to help, Gasol can utilize his sublime passing skills to perfection.
The other four, Lamar Odom is one of the hardest matchups in the league with his combination of speed, size and ball-handling skills. And LO has the speed and size to stay with Lewis defensively. If Odom has a big series like he did against Utah, this series is over.
3) Kobe Bryant
Pietrus did a commendable job covering LeBron in the series, even though Lebron got his 38.5 ppg but, he is LeBron after all.
More importantly, by staying with him one on one most of the time, the Magic avoided giving easy looks to the rest of the Cavs. Conventional wisdom would say if you can guard the King, you can guard Mamba, right?
Unfortunately, Kobe is the more complete offensive player. Yes, Lebron is the physically superior athlete but he has more limitations. Force him to drive with his left hand and his percentage drops drastically. Make him a jump shooter and you would have half the battle won.
With Kobe, he is as likely to go left as he is to go right. He can punish you inside the paint, from the perimeter or from beyond the arc, all with a hand in his face. As Denver discovered in Game Five and Game Six, Kobe can kill you with the pass as well.
Sure, his court vision may not be on the King's level, but he has honed his skills and reading of the game to a new level.
4) The man the Magic gave away
Trevor Ariza has been quietly becoming another Mitch Kupchak steal, gradually cementing his spot in the starting five. In the playoffs, he has frequently been the 3rd or fourth scorer while usually drawing the toughest defensive assignments. Ariza has given the Lakers a premier defensive stopper they had not had since Michael Cooper.
With a vastly improved three point shot (an amazing 50 percent in the playoffs), he could make the Magic pay for trading him. Watching him stop Turkgulo will be one of the keys to this series and having him on the floor means the Magic can't slack off him to double Kobe, as the Nuggets discovered to their detriment.
5) The Lakers are finally playing up to their potential
Ok, not completely, Bynum is not much offensively and the Machine is broken down but it appears that Denver has woken the sleeping giant. With the Lakers emphasizing ball movement and unleashing the destructive beauty of the triangle offense, the Lakers juggernaut is in full force.
If Kobe continues to be the maestro he was in Games Five and Six, drawing the double team and finding the open man and they get Gasol more touches down low, it is hard to imagine how the Lakers can be stopped.
No offense to the Magic but ultimately the Lakers' main opposition is themselves. If they can come out and play with the same passion and fire that they did in the last two games, there is no contest. The Magic could get hot from beyond the arc and win two but ultimately, the Lakers have too many weapons to be contained.
Prediction: Lakers in six.