For Kobe Bryant, Phil Jackson, and the Los Angeles Lakers, the tip off of the 2009 NBA Finals could not come quick enough.
It was 364 days ago that this same team was in Boston, taking on a Celtics team that was destined to win the championship. The magical season that Boston’s big three had would not be derailed, not by LeBron James and the Cavs; nor by the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals, and not by the Lakers in the championship round.
The Lakers ran into a bigger, stronger, tougher team, who completely took away the finesse game from them. Boston took the heart, and the series, with an improbable game four comeback to go up 3-1, and eventually win the series in six.
Fast forward to this morning. As fans of the NBA begin to prepare for what should be a very competitive and exciting NBA Finals, these teams come in with the same objective, but very different realities.
For the Magic, they were supposed to be a year (or two) away from the success they achieved this postseason. After Jameer Nelson went down in February, many people thought Orlando would struggle to keep home court advantage in their first round series of the playoffs.
As the LeBron James media love-fest continued to gain momentum in the spring, the league, Nike, and other major media outlets indirectly prepped the casual sports fan for a LeBron/Kobe NBA Finals.
However, Dwight Howard and company had something to say about that. The Magic arrive today playing with house money. The Lakers, on the other hand, are at a serious crossroads in the franchise.
Phil Jackson may not have a better opportunity to surpass Red Auerbach in all time NBA championships as a coach than this year. Kobe Bryant desperately would love to win the NBA title, not only to prove to the masses that he can win one without Shaq, but also to cement his legacy as an all time great.
No matter if you love or hate Bryant, you cannot deny his greatness and talent on the court. With a vintage Finals performance over the next two weeks, we could see No. 24 move up in the discussion of the top five or six greatest players to ever set foot on an NBA court.
In order for any of that to come to fruition, the Lakers will have to handle three critical tasks in beating the Magic.
1. Defend the Wing
Orlando has the ability to beat opponents so many ways on offense.
When Howard gets the ball in the post, the Lakers, like many teams, could be tempted to double down and force Howard to kick the ball out.
Once Superman is within five feet of the basket, you can pretty much chalk up a dunk or free throws. If he kicks it out, J.J Reddick, Courtney Lee, Rashard Lewis, or Hedo Turkoglu can make you pay with threes.
Lamar Odom will have to stick to his assignment on the wing, whether he is guarding Lewis or Hedo, and make certain their shots are contested every time.
2. The Rebounding War
Orlando and Los Angeles had near identical numbers during the season in rebounding, so the team that can win that battle, particularly on the offensive rebounding end, will be key in what should be close games in the fourth quarter.
Lamar Odom and Luke Walton are key players off the bench for the Lakers, as are Courtney Lee and Anthony Johnson for the Magic.
Johnson, in particular, will have a size advantage over Jordan Farmar when they are both on the court. It is imperative that he exploits that when Orlando has the ball.
3. Defend Home Court
This is perhaps the most obvious task the Lakers will have to complete, but it cannot be taken for granted.
Orlando has defeated the Lakers three out of the last four times they have met, and that wasn’t just because of the play of Jameer Nelson. The Magic are a confident team, and just like they shocked the Cavaliers, they could very easily walk into Staples tonight and steal game one.
The Lakers have to realize game one and two are the first two must win games they have played this postseason.
Ideally, if they win those two, and go 1-2 to Orlando, they would come back home with two opportunities to close out the Magic and win the title.
That is best case scenario. If you lose one of the first two games, now you put yourself in a situation where you need to win two of three on the road, which is no easy task playing in Amway Arena.
What Will Happen
This series should have many twists and turns, and will come down to a deciding game seven.
In the end, with the game, the series, and the NBA title on the line, Kobe Bryant will get what many feel he has always wanted—a chance to exorcise the demons of his past, and raise his team, and his legacy, to new heights.
The Lakers will defeat the Magic 108-101 in game seven to capture the NBA title, and Kobe Bryant is your Finals MVP.