“Does it have a happy ending? As only celluloid can deliver.”
- An excerpt from V for Vendetta
It’s fitting that one of my favorite movies can provide the precursor for a preview of one of my favorite sporting events—the NBA Finals.
Orlando’s presence in the NBA Finals might not provide the luster of Kobe vs. LeBron, but that will not make the Finals any less intriguing. The Magic Kingdom and Hollywood will vie for the NBA title, and I’m here to break down each team’s strengths and weaknesses, individual matchups, the headliners, the unsung heroes and keys to victory for each team.
Team strengths/team weaknesses
Orlando’s success from beyond the arc comes up the most when pundits address the team strengths of the Magic—however, Orlando’s team defense is formidable in its own right. Orlando has earned a 9-0 mark in the postseason when they’ve allowed 90 points or less, and Dwight Howard has singlehandedly anchored Orlando’s interior defense.
Additionally, Orlando has only allowed 93.7 points per game in the postseason, third-best among NBA quarterfinalists (Houston, Orlando, L.A. Lakers, Cleveland, Denver, Dallas, Boston and Atlanta and tops among the NBA’s semifinalists (Orlando, L.A. Lakers, Cleveland, Denver).
Orlando’s well-documented prowess from behind the three-point line is warranted; Orlando leads all postseason participants in three-pointers made (8.6) and attempted per game (23.4), good for a 36.7 average.
I count Orlando’s team rebounding and bench as team weaknesses. Orlando has averaged 38.4 rebounds per game as a team, second-worst among NBA quarterfinalists and last among NBA semifinalists. Dwight Howard, a rebounding and defensive dynamo, averages 15.4 rebounds per game, which accounts for more than 40 percent of his team’s rebounds.
Concerning Orlando’s bench, Mickael Pietrus and Courtney Lee are the lone dependable reserves for the Magic. Players such as Anthony Johnson, J.J. Redick and Marcin Gortat provide a spell for Orlando’s starters; however, the drop-off in play is greatly apparent.
Los Angeles’ team strengths include offensive prowess, experience, and a wealth of talent. The Lakers averaged 106.9 points per game in the regular season and have averaged 102.9 points in the postseason—both ranked third overall. The Lakers, NBA finalists last season, return most of last year’s team to this year’s Finals.
Additionally, the Lakers feature Kobe Bryant, arguably the best player in the game; Pau Gasol, a 20-10 threat when he’s at the top of his game, in addition to Lamar Odom, a versatile player with triple-double potential when he’s at the top of his game.
The Lakers’ inconsistency and lack of mental toughness fall into the category of team weaknesses for Los Angeles. There’s little doubt to the fact that the Lakers boast a talented roster. However, Los Angeles’ collective effort varies greatly from night to night.
That fact reared its ugly head in the Lakers’ seven-game series with the Houston Rockets, where Los Angeles failed to put away a Rockets team that competed without its top two players, Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, for either a portion of all of the series.
Headliners: Kobe Bryant vs. Dwight Howard
Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard will receive most of the publicity in this year’s Finals, and rightfully so—these players are the catalysts for their respective teams. Kobe, widely regarded as “the best closer in the game,” revels and thrives in late-game situations. Additionally, Kobe is a talented scorer and a strong cerebral player.
Kobe will need to overcome a pair of deficiencies to compete at optimum efficiency in these Finals, however.
First, Kobe must attack Orlando’s defense with dribble penetration. This will open up opportunities for Kobe’s teammates and provide easier shots for him individually. His penchant for settling for long-range jumpers plays into Orlando’s hands from two perspectives—the Magic won’t need to work nearly as hard defensively and will be able to activate its transition game.
Second, Kobe must display mental fortitude when dealing with teammates and/or deficits. Kobe has shown an unenviable submissiveness in previous playoff losses.
Howard is a great finisher at both ends of the floor. His thunderous dunks and powerful blocks are crowd-pleasing and provide energy for his team.
There are a few knocks on Howard, though. Howard lacks variation with his moves in the post, and in the event that a defense can keep him out of the paint, Howard struggles with placing the ball in the basket.
Howard’s offensive woes also extend to the free-throw line, where he is a marginal shooter at best. Howard also battles with foul trouble at times—he carries a 4.6 personal foul-per-game average into the Lakers’ series.
Pippen Ain't Easy: Pau Gasol vs. Hedo Turkoglu
Gasol and Turkoglu’s contributions to their respective teams reminds me of the contributions of former Chicago Bulls star Scottie Pippen, who was more than a second banana to the brilliance of Michael Jordan.
Pippen’s defensive prowess, in conjunction with his knowledge and ability to thrive in the triangle offense, made him a vital asset to the Bulls’ title runs in the ’90s and warranted more respect than he garnered during that period.
The light went off for Gasol during the Lakers’ series against the Denver Nuggets, and he delivered impressive numbers—17.5 points per game, 12.3 rebounds per game and shot 63 percent from the field. Gasol’s strong play coincides with L.A.’s success, and he will need to improve on his modest numbers against Orlando this season (12.0 points per game, 8.0 rebounds per game).
Orlando’s offense, unconventionally working from the perimeter to the post, flourishes with the solid decision-making and strong all-around play of Turkoglu. Turkoglu’s 41.0 field-goal percentage in the playoffs is modest; however, he’s shooting over 37 percent from behind the arc.
Additionally, Orlando is 7-1 in the postseason when Turkoglu dishes off five or more assists.
Anomailies: Lamar Odom vs. Rashard Lewis
Six-foot-ten players in the NBA usually thrive in the post. However, Odom and Lewis’ versatility helps them enjoy a measure of success from behind the arc.
Odom, a triple-double threat, and Lewis, a strong perimeter shooter displaying a touch of clutch in the postseason, are considered x-factors in the series, and understandably so.
Odom has five double-doubles in the playoffs, all coming in Laker victories. Odom has also made 14 of 27 threes in the playoffs. Lewis made 15 of31 threes in the series against Cleveland, and Orlando has won six of eight postseason games in which Lewis made half his shots.
Point Guard: Orlando’s Rafer Alston vs. the Lakers’ Derek Fisher
I give the slight edge in this matchup to the Lakers. Derek Fisher, a venerable floor leader for L.A., has struggled in the postseason. Fisher’s scoring average dropped from 9.9 in the regular season to 7.1. However, Fisher’s experience and toughness will be invaluable for the Lakers.
Shooting Guard: Orlando’s Mickael Pietrus vs. the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant
I give the Lakers a strong edge in this matchup. Courtney Lee might pick up some starts for Orlando, but Pietrus will guard Kobe for most of the series. The key for Orlando’s shooters will be to hit perimeter shots, which will keep Kobe—who likes to roam on defense—honest with his defensive assignment.
Small Forward: Orlando’s Hedo Turkoglu vs. the Lakers’ Trevor Ariza
I give the Magic a slight edge in this matchup. Trevor Ariza has shown great strides in the playoffs with his strong defensive play and improved three-point shooting; however, Turkoglu’s big-game ability and experience has carried Orlando to its current perch. It will be interesting to see if Ariza, who was released by the Magic, will play with a chip on his shoulder.
Power Forward: Orlando’s Rashard Lewis vs. the Lakers’ Pau Gasol
I give the Lakers a slight edge in this matchup. Lewis and Gasol’s scoring numbers are similar, but Gasol’s rebounding numbers and energized play will factor into the Lakers’ success.
Center: Orlando’s Dwight Howard vs. the Lakers’ Andrew Bynum
I give Orlando a strong edge in this matchup. Dwight Howard’s 40-point effort in the final game of the Cleveland series proved that he is poised to terrorize the Lakers. Conversely, Andrew Bynum has regressed since he sustained a knee injury earlier in the season.
Bench: Orlando’s Courtney Lee vs. the Lakers’ Lamar Odom
I give the Lakers a slight edge in this matchup. Orlando’s limited bench hasn’t played well, but the Laker reserves have played inconsistently. Again, Lamar Odom’s play will be pivotal to the success of the Lakers.
Five Keys for the Magic
1) The Magic must continue generating its offense from the outside-in. It might be an unconventional method, but it’s working for Orlando.
2) No sudden movements for Stan Van Gundy. Orlando’s coach knows his X’s and O’s, but he periodically makes coaching decisions that allow teams to shave away at big leads.
3) Dance with the one that brought you. It’s fitting that Rafer Alston’s nickname is “Skip to My Lou,” because his play late of late places Orlando in a position to win a NBA title. There’s no need to rush back Jameer Nelson—yes, he’s a Laker killer, but he’s also the future of the franchise. Additionally, his return may hinder Orlando’s chemistry.
4) There is no such thing as a “LeBron stopper” or a “Kobe stopper.” However, Mickael Pietrus forced LeBron James to work for his points in the Cleveland series. He’ll have to do the same in regards to Kobe Bryant, and it will take more than a change in footwear to wear down Kobe.
5) Orlando must hit the boards as a team. The Lakers’ roster contains too many big bodies for one man, even if folks call him Superman. Dwight Howard needs help on the glass and Orlando needs to crash the boards to stay in the series.
Five Keys for the Lakers
1) Employ team balance. The Lakers are at their best when they’re sharing the ball, running in transition and playing tough defense.
2) Kobe Bryant must also display a similar balance. Again, Kobe must stay away from the temptation of settling for long jumpers.
3) The Lakers’ frontcourt must display physicality and play with vigor. Do you hear me, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum?! That goes double for you, Andrew.
4) Please, please, single-cover Dwight Howard. Cleveland inexplicably double-teamed Howard, and Orlando’s perimeter players overwhelmed the Cavaliers. Orlando’s offense works from the outside-in, so stopping Orlando’s perimeter attack should be the defense’s primary objective.
5) Display mental toughness. The Lakers must rise to the challenge at closing time, whether that means knocking down free throws or putting away contests late. Additionally, the Lakers won’t have the luxury of taking games off against a Magic team playing with extreme confidence.
The Lakers and the Magic match up, well and enjoy similar numbers in assists per game, turnovers per game and three-point percentage. Additionally, both the Lakers and Magic enjoyed strong records on the road in the regular-season; the Lakers finished with a 29-12 mark on the road, but the Magic finished with a 27-14 mark away from home.
I believe this matchup comes down to experience and clutch play, where the Lakers have a slight edge.
I believe the Lakers will win the series, and the NBA title, in seven games.