Friday, June 26, 2009

Three random observations ...

... about the NBA:

1. It was odd that the Thunder passed up Ricky Rubio, given that he is the pure point guard they lack. It was odder still that the Kings didn't take him, either. Rubio fell into the lap of the Minnesota Timberwolves at the fifth pick in Thursday's 2009 NBA Draft, and in a night that was heavy with point guards, the Wolves got quality and quantity. Rubio, an 18-year-old whose passing skills have already been compared to those of the all-time greats, has experience as a professional in his native Spain and at the Olympic level with the Spanish national team, the silver medalists in 2008. The Thunder, and especially the Kings, will regret missing out on him. James Harden, only 19, is a legitimate top four selection, so Oklahoma City is at least getting a player of decent value out of the No. 3 pick. Tyreke Evans is talented, but there are questions about his shooting and athleticism, which doesn't bode well for a two-guard. He plays the same position as Kevin Martin, the best player on the Sacramento roster. The move just doesn't make sense. The Wolves have quite a pair in Rubio and Al Jefferson, but they inexplicably took Jonny Flynn, another point guard, with the sixth pick. GM David Kahn is promoting the idea that the two could play together, but he wouldn't compromise his trade leverage by announcing that one or both is available. The truth is likely that one of them can be had. The Wolves turned heads again when they selected Ty Lawson, yet another point guard, at No. 18, but they quickly traded him to Denver for future considerations.

2. The New York fans were sorely disappointed when Stephen Curry was taken by the Warriors at No. 7, one pick before the Knicks could have nabbed him. Curry, with his ability to shoot and finish, would no doubt have been fun to watch Mike D'Antoni's system, but New York need not shed a tear. Jordan Hill may actually be an even better fit. He is a 6-10 power forward who can rebound and run the floor, which makes for a prototypical D'Antoni center. The Knicks have David Lee at center, too, but often teamed him with Jared Jeffries, a lithe power forward over whom Hill is a significant improvement. Lee is a restricted free agent, so the Knicks have the option now to not match another team's long-term offer if they so desire, opening up even more cap space for 2010. Hill has shown continual improvement in his rebounding numbers while at college, winding up at an average of 11 per game this past season at Arizona, and if that trend continues in the pros, the Knicks may have come up with a steal.

3. The news Thursday was not all about the draft. The Magic acquired Vince Carter, along with second-year power forward Ryan Anderson, for Rafer Alston, Courtney Lee and Tony Battie. It's a surprising move, since it was clear the formula Orlando had this past season worked, at least well enough to get the team to the Finals. Magic GM Otis Smith, to his credit, wants more. Yet it's not clear whether the Magic really got any better. They diversified their offense with a player who can penetrate, create his own shot and gave themselves another ballhandler, all of which was necessary. He's still capable of scoring 20 points a game, dishing out close to five assists and grabbing about five rebounds, but Carter's numbers were down across the board this past year, when he turned 32. It's likely he'll continue his decline this year, but even a diminished Carter may be better than what the Magic had. The tough part of this trade for the Magic is having to give up Lee, an impressive rookie whose game is only going to get better, instead of worse. Orlando may find out they would have been better off keeping him, but they instead decided to go with Carter, whose talents are far more of a known quantity. Anderson's presence in the trade may have been enough to quell Smith's concerns, since like Lee, he seems poised for improvement after a promising rookie year. His 6-foot-10, 240 pounds frame, 4,7 rebounds in 20 minutes a night and 36.5 percent three-point shooting make him a perfect backup for Rashard Lewis. The Nets probably aren't ecstatic about giving him up, especially since they clearly have an eye on the future. The rest of the trade sets up New Jersey quite well for the summer of 2010. Alston and Battie are contracts that expire after next season, when they will look to combine a young nucleus of Devin Harris, Lee and Brook Lopez with cap space to go after a premier free agent class.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Three random observations ...

... about the NBA:

1. Shaq is finally headed to Cleveland. The Cavs are acquiring him for the 46th pick in Thursday's draft plus Ben Wallace and Sasha Pavlovic, two players the Suns will be more easily be able to move off their books. The deal, which this blog first discussed in February, gives LeBron his first Hall of Fame-caliber teammate, albeit one in the twilight of his career. Shaq will turn 38 next March, but his 17.8 points per game and 8.4 rebounds from last season represented a renaissance that included a deserving selection to the All-Star Game, where he split MVP honors with Kobe. Now, Shaq will look to one-up Kobe with another NBA title. It's clear Cleveland wants to win this season, while LeBron is still under contract. There's no other reason to acquire a center in his late 30s with a $21 million salary. The move shores up Cleveland's frontline, which was overmatched by Orlando's athleticism and diversity of skill in the Eastern Conference Finals. It provides LeBron with the kind of playoff-tested sidekick that he sorely missed in that Orlando series, as long as Shaq remains healthy and in good playing shape. Shaq's continued production at a high-level is a risky proposition, but the Cavs must go all-in this year. It's a gamble worth taking. The move makes sense for the Suns, too, who were going nowhere. It will be painful for Phoenix to lose Shaq, Steve Nash, who is sure to follow, and other veterans like Amare Stoudemire and Grant Hill, but it's clear they were no longer close to being title contenders after missing the playoffs this year. Now, they can begin to rebuild.

2. The Spurs, another perenial contender that took a step back this past season, found a way to move back into the picture. The acquisition of Richard Jefferson for Bruce Bowen and Kurt Thomas gives the Spurs the kind of athletic wing player they've long lacked to put along side Manu Ginobili in crunch time. Jefferson, 29, revitalizes the aging Spurs, who get Ginobili back from the ankle injury that prematurely ended his season this year. Jefferson averaged 19.6 points, 4.6 rebounds and 2.4 assists last year, and has experience as a contributing member of a contending team with New Jersey in the first few years of his career. It's another shrewd move by general manager R.C. Buford, and while it's far from a panacea for the Spurs, who must be wary of the long-term health of Ginobili and Tim Duncan, it's likely the best move they could have made this offseason. The trade is a salary dump for Milwaukee, a franchise that continues to search for answers, having failed to win more than 42 games for eight straight seasons after making the Eastern Conference Finals in 2001.

3. I hesitate to do mock drafts with as many trades and potential deals affecting the draft order as we've seen this year, but here's a stab at it. A lot of speculation holds that Ricky Rubio, the 18-year-old Spanish point guard phenom, will drop after a poor workout with Sacramento. Don't buy it. Rubio, competing in last year's Olympics, has already shown he can compete at a high level with world-class competition. He shouldn't fall out of the top four, and if he does, a team or two will look back on this draft with a great deal of regret.

1. L.A. Clippers: Blake Griffin, PF, Oklahoma
2. Memphis: Hasheem Thabeet, C, Connecticut
3. Oklahoma City: Ricky Rubio, PG, Spain
4. Sacramento: James Harden, G, Arizona State
5. Minnesota: Jordan Hill, PF, Arizona
6. Minnesota: Stephen Curry, PG, Davidson
7. Golden State: Demar Derozan, SG/SF, Southern Cal
8. New York: Jonny Flynn, PG, Syracuse
9. Toronto: Tyreke Evans, G, Memphis
10. Milwaukee: Jrue Holiday, G, UCLA

Update: Golden State appears to be sending Jamal Crawford to the Hawks for point guards Acie Law and Speedy Claxton, so I'm now projecting the Warriors will take Demar Derozan instead of Jonny Flynn, whom I see getting scooped up by the Knicks.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

NBA Finals, Game 5

Say what you will about Kobe, but nobody wanted it more this season. Kobe led the Lakers to a title without Shaquille O'Neal for the first time in his fifth try without his former Hall of Fame teammate, furthering his position among the All-Time greats Sunday after a 99-86 victory to seal the NBA championship. Kobe combined with Lamar Odom, coincidentally one of the players acquired in the trade that sent Shaq away, to take the heart out of the Orlando Magic, who never challenged after a 16-0 L.A. run in the second quarter. Kobe scored 30 points, had six rebounds and dished out five assists, right on his numbers for the playoffs, and won his first Bill Russell Finals MVP award. Odom had 17 points, including three from three-point range, and pulled down 10 rebounds that were key to L.A.'s 47-36 advantage on the boards. Odom in essence canceled out Rashard Lewis, who had 18 points and 10 rebounds. The problem for Orlando is that Lewis was their most prolific contributor Sunday. Dwight Howard was held almost completely in check, scoring only 11 points to go with 10 rebounds and three blocks. The Magic shot just 8-for-27 from behind the arc, while the Lakers were 8-for-16 and made 11 more free throws as well. The game simply wasn't competitive once Trevor Ariza, who scored 11 of his 15 points during a four-minute stretch in the second quarter, heated up after a confrontation with Hedo Turkoglu. The two were jawing near the Orlando bench, and both were hit with technical fouls with 5:43 to go until halftime. The Magic were ahead 40-39 at that point, but Ariza nailed a pair of 26-foot three-pointers, made a layup, a 15-footer and a free throw, and by the end of the half the Lakers had a 10-point lead. Ariza used the series to deepen the Magic's lament over trading him away last season for Mo Evans and Brian Cook. The Lakers got Pau Gasol in another lopsided deal last year, and he continued to pay dividends in the clinching game Sunday, delivering 14 points and a game-high 15 rebounds. The Lakers haven't lost three in a row since acquiring Gasol, a staggering achievement that underscores the hole the Magic were in, trailing 3 games to 1 and needing to win three straight. Orlando was nonetheless one Courtney Lee shot in Game 2 and one Dwight Howard free throw in Game 4 from a much different series. The Finals, apart from Sunday and Game 1, were far from a victory lap for the Lakers. It's not clear, given how close Orlando came, and the fact the Cavs saved their worst games for last, that the best team won. It is certain that these Lakers are a championship-caliber club, and that coach Phil Jackson should be recognized as the gold standard among NBA bosses. His record of 10 titles, more than anyone not just in the NBA but in the NFL or Major League Baseball as well, will likely stand forever. He was fortunate, indeed, to lead teams with the best players of their time, like Jordan, Shaq and Kobe, but plenty of coaches have failed to make the most of their talent. A few others have taken them to the top of the mountain once or twice, but never again. Jackson has proven again and again that his success, and the success of his teams, is no fluke.


Thanks for reading this year. It's been a fun learning experience and I intend to keep this going. This is a constantly evolving process, so I'm not sure how the blog will look next year, but it will be here. Keep an eye out for draft coverage and analysis of free agent signings and trades in the offseason. It should be interesting, with all sorts of teams looking to dump salary. And, in case you're wondering, my predictions, so solid during the first two rounds of the playoffs, were off the mark in the last two. I took the Cavs in five games in the Eastern Conference Finals, but wound up one of many who were caught off guard by the Magic, who won in six. I was much closer in the Western Conference Finals, where I had the Lakers winning in 7. They took care of Denver in six. I had the right team in the Finals, but I thought it would be a seven-game series instead of five. How was I supposed to know Dwight Howard would miss two free throws and Jameer Nelson would completely forget Derek Fisher was one of the all-time great clutch three-point shooters?

Friday, June 12, 2009

NBA Finals Game 4

The Orlando Magic could easily be up 3-1 in the NBA Finals. They're down 3-1 instead. The Magic were up by a dozen at halftime Thursday, and held a five-point lead with as few as 31 seconds to go, but shockingly poor defense and two missed free throws by Dwight Howard allowed the Lakers to force overtime, where they pulled away for a 99-91 victory. Game 4 was a dramatic collapse that costs Orlando any reasonable shot it might have had and presents the Lakers with a clear shot at the championship. The Magic built an 87-82 lead on a three-pointer and a tough runner by Hedo Turkoglu, who hit more than his share of difficult shots en route to a team-high 25 points. Turkoglu never made another basket. Rashard Lewis missed a 16-footer with 39 seconds to go, and Derek Fisher, whose greatest contribution to the game was yet to come, grabbed the rebound, and started a fast break that ended with Kobe finding a hustling Pau Gasol for an uncontested dunk. That cut the lead to three, but the Magic were able to get the ball to their best player, Dwight Howard, underneath, where three defenders converged upon him and sent him to the line with 10.4 seconds left. The Magic shot just 60 percent from the line all night, but either one of Howard's free throws would have in essence sealed the game for the Magic. Howard, who was a woeful 6-for-14 from the stripe, missed them both. Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy elected not to foul, and allow the Lakers to shoot for three-pointer if they wanted. Van Gundy didn't tell Jameer Nelson to give his man ample room to take the trey, but that's exactly what Nelson did, laying off of Fisher as the veteran sharpshooter added one more clutch playoff three-pointer to his resume. The stunned Magic had all sorts of trouble getting the ball inbounds for an answer with 4.6 remaining, and a quick leaner by Mickael Pietrus went array as the buzzer sounded. Orlando continued to look rattled in the overtime, scoring only three points, but had the game tied in the final minute. Fisher once more delivered a daggar, with another three-pointer that gave the Lakers a 94-91 lead with 31 seconds to go. Turkoglu missed a three-pointer on the other end, and Gasol got free for another dunk that served as exclamation point to the L.A. victory. The words preceding the punctuation would read, "Thank You," for 19 turnovers and 15 missed free throws from the Magic. The Lakers didn't fail to take advantage of the opportunities laid at their feet, and again were led by the brilliance of Kobe, who had 32 points, eight assists and seven rebounds. Gasol had 16 points and 10 rebounds, and Trevor Ariza, who scored all of his points in the second half, put up 16 points and nine rebounds. None of it would have gone toward a win if the Magic had not allowed it to happen.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

NBA Finals Game 3

Kobe came out Tuesday determined to close the door on any chance he would not cement his legacy with a championship this year. He finished with the kind of performance that raises legitimate doubts about his championship mettle and the outcome of the series with Orlando. The Magic cut the L.A. lead to 2-1, prevailing 108-104 in a game the Lakers could have won if Kobe had not missed 10 of his last 13 shots from the floor, five of his last eight free throws, and lost the ball when Dwight Howard poked it away in the final minute. The stretch run was the complete opposite of his first quarter, when Kobe had 17 points and either scored or assisted on all but four L.A. baskets. He was a major reason why the Lakers were able to stick around despite 75 percent shooting in the first half for the Magic, a phenomenal display that set an all-time NBA Finals record for field goal percentage in a half. Kobe's totals of 31 points and eight assists don't suggest any sort of failure, but the lofty standard to which he is aspiring to be held demands more than just a prolific statistical showing. Too many misses and mistakes prevented his team from sealing victory after erasing what had been a nine-point deficit with 7:55 to go. Kobe missed from close range with 3:33 left, was off on a 3-pointer with 2:02 on the clock, clanked a free throw with 59 seconds to go, lost the ball with 28 seconds remaining and missed two three-pointers on the final L.A. possession. Those troubles obscure a scintillating 63 percent shooting performance by the Magic and a 51 percent shooting night for the Lakers that was nearly enough to put them over the top. Rafer Alston had a fearless performance after scoring a total of 10 points in the first two games, going 8-for-12 for 20 points. Rashard Lewis shot 3-for-6 on his three-pointers, including a pair of treys at the end of the first half that erased the last lead for the Lakers, and went 8-for-14 overall to score 21 points. Howard tied Lewis for the team high in points, going 11-for-16 at the line and 5-for-6 from the floor. Hedo Turkoglu was 7-for-12 for 18 points on an all-around night, leading the team with seven assists and grabbing six rebounds as well. Mickael Pietrus came off the bench to score 18 as well and, once in the game, was able to slow Kobe, who was far and away the focus of L.A.'s offense. His 11-for-25 performance from the floor came on more than twice as many shots as any other Laker, though his teammates made the most of their limited opportunities. Pau Gasol was 9-for-11 for 23 points, and Lamar Odom and Jordan Farmar had identical 4-for-6, 11-point stat lines off the bench. Trevor Ariza struggled with his shot thanks to Turkoglu's defense, but managed 13 points and seven rebounds. Derek Fisher went 4-for-9 for nine points, including a wide open three-pointer he canned to pull the Lakers within two points at the 5:25 mark of the fourth quarter. The Lakers tied the game on a pair of Gasol free throws with 2:41 to play, but Pietrus finished off a Turkoglu miss with a resounding dunk that gave the Magic the lead for good. The Magic are a couple of Courtney Lee misses in Game 2 away from enjoying a lead in the series, as well. Kobe still has a ways to go before he wins his first NBA crown without Shaq, and as the unquestioned best player on his team. The question for the rest of the series, much as it was coming into the Finals, is whether he possesses that extra gear necessary to carry a team the way Jordan, Russell, Bird and select few others did. If he does, he will ascend into their ranks. If he plays the way he did in the second half of Game 3, he won't.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

NBA Finals Game 2

The first assignment for the Magic after Game 2 of the NBA Finals might be making sure rookie Courtney Lee isn't ruminating about the end of regulation. He missed two shots from close range in the last 10 seconds, either of which would have provided visiting Orlando the winning margin in what turned out to be a 101-96 overtime victory for L.A. that gives the Lakers a 2-0 series lead. Lee drove the lane with 10.5 seconds to go and missed a contested layup, but after Hedo Turkoglu blocked Kobe Bryant's shot on the other end, Lee received an unexpected second chance. He broke toward the basket on a backdoor cut as the ball was being inbounded on an inbounds play with six-tenths of a second go to, catching the ball in the air and switching hands to get a shot off in time over the outstretched hands of Pau Gasol. The ball was shot with a little too much force and bounced off the backboard and away. It was a tough shot, and the layup before was far from a wide-open opportunity. Stan Van Gundy and Lee's teammates must impress upon him that the weight of the loss does not fall on his shoulders alone. The Magic simply made too many mistakes, turning the ball over 20 times while Van Gundy's lineup experiments bore no fruit. Van Gundy used Rashard Lewis as a small forward with centers Dwight Howard and Marcin Gortat on the floor early in the fourth quarter, and went largely without a point guard down the stretch. The Lakers were unfazed, as Kobe, Gasol and Odom all proved why they're top-level talents. Kobe did plenty of scoring and passing, with 29 points and eight assists, while Gasol had 24 points and 10 rebounds, and Odom went for 19 points and eight rebounds in 46 minutes. The Magic had the hot-shooting Lewis, who nailed six treys for 34 points to go along with 11 rebounds, 22 points on 8-for-17 shooting from Hedo Turkoglu and a 17-point, 16-rebound night out of Howard. They just didn't have a complimentary player like Derek Fisher, who nailed a couple of three-pointers and went 4-for-9 from the field overall to register as L.A.'s fourth double-figure scorer with 12 points. No one other than the three high-scorers for Orlando had more than five points. Fisher played 41 minutes while his understudies Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown were out there for just six minutes apiece, and the veteran rewarded coach Phil Jackson's confidence. Kobe, Gasol and Odom will be remembered as the prime movers for this Lakers team if they can win two more games, but Fisher remains an invaluable asset when he's needed the most.

The NBA finals are always hyped as a clash of stars, but role players often have as much to do with the outcome as anyone else. Veteran Derek Fisher, who at times has struggled with his shot this year,

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

NBA Finals Preview

This year's NBA Finals matchup would be highly anticipated in just about any other year. The prospect of a rising young star in Dwight Howard leading a 59-win team of three-point gunners into a battle with Kobe, Gasol and a talented yet vulnerable 65-win Lakers team has a great deal of cachet, but because we missed out on LeBron vs. Kobe, it's a little deflating. The NBA and would be better to move on, though, and appreciate the plentiful appeal of the matchup we have.

Orlando comes in riding a huge high after making the Cavs look like LeBron and the D-League All-Stars. The Lakers played some of their best basketball against the Nuggets, but not until Games 5 and 6. The eternal question about this Laker team is about the kind of effort they'll give. It's the Finals, so one might expect them to be going at full bore, but because it's the Magic, instead of the Cavs, their fragile psyches may allow them to let up. Coach Phil Jackson, if he earns his record 10th ring, will have earned it. He's opposed by Stan Van Gundy, finally manifesting the championship run he seemed poised to take with the Miami Heat a few years earlier before Pat Riley usurped the opportunity. Van Gundy has proven himself with his ability to make adjustments, and he'll be forced to make more, especially if the X-factor, Jameer Nelson, makes a return from his torn labrum. His chances of playing seem to depend on whichever member of the Magic organization is speaking at the time. The odds he'd actually be effective are, despite his history success against the Lakers, much lower than a 50-50 shot. Nelson's potential comeback at best could serve as an effective smokescreen that creates a distraction for the Lakers. At worst, it disrupts the chemistry and psychology of the Magic, a team that comes in playing remarkably well. Van Gundy, too, will earn his title if he gets it.

The point guard position is a pivotal matchup with or without Nelson. Rafer Alston had a career playoff high 26 points in Game 4 against Cleveland, but followed it up with just three points in Game 5. Derek Fisher has been up-and-down throughout the playoffs, as have his two backups, Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown. The play of the backups, with veteran Anthony Johnson against the younger Lakers, may be the determinant.

The other guard position is all about Kobe, who had an awesome closeout game against the Nuggets, scoring 35 points to go with 10 assists and six rebounds. He put it all together as both a distributor and a scorer, and when he has nights like that, the Lakers are simply unstoppable. The Magic will send whomever necessary to limit his scoring and passing, with Alston, starting shooting guard Courtney Lee, Hedo Turkoglu, Mickael Pietrus and J.J. Redick all likely to get a look at some point. Pietrus, who was the primary defender against LeBron in the conference finals, is most likely to spend crunch time assigned to Kobe, creating as tough a three- or four-week stretch as there can be for any one defender. LeBron scored plenty of points against him, but Pietrus was able to keep LeBron from becoming an offensive facilitator, and if he can do the same against Kobe, it'll be a huge plus for the Magic.

The Orlando wing player not assigned to Kobe gets Trevor Ariza, the defensive specialist who has suddenly become potent on the offensive end as well, going 30-for-60 from behind the three-point arc in the playoffs and lifting his regular season average of 8.9 points per game to 11.4 for the postseason. Opponents can't double off of him to check Kobe, a significant breakthrough for the L.A. attack. His emergence has been mirrored by the resurgence of Hedo Turkoglu, who has played better as the playoffs have gone on. He was a major force in the Cleveland series even without an eye-opening percentage from behind the arc. He averaged 17.2 points, 6.7 assists and 6.3 rebounds a game against the Cavs, while shooting 39 percent from long distance. He gave the Magic a point forward who could score from just about anywhere on the floor, creating much greater offensive diversity than just Howard and three-point gunning. He'll give Ariza plenty of headaches if he can keep it up, and perhaps force Jackson to use Lamar Odom on him instead of Rashard Lewis.

Orlando's power forward has been the sort of all-around offensive presence the Magic have needed him to be throughout the playoffs, as Lewis has scored in double figures in each of the team's 19 postseason games and averaged 19.4 points per game for the playoffs. Odom, who appears to have shaken off the effects of a blow to the back he suffered during a fall in the Houston series, is just the sort of versatile defender who can counteract Lewis, having the ability to guard the perimeter as well as the post. Odom will likely see crunch time minutes, but Pau Gasol will start at power forward, meaning Lewis will be challenged to defend Gasol's array of moves in the post. Gasol is not an overwhelming physical presence for Lewis, however, and the Magic should be more easily be able to exploit Gasol's weaknesses as a perimeter defender if Jackson indeed starts Andrew Bynum instead of Odom.

Bynum would start at center, of course, against Howard, a daunting challenge for a 21-year-old who disappears at times and was slow to recover from a midseason knee injury. The Lakers, much as the Magic will probably do with Kobe, are likely to give Howard multiple looks, with Bynum, Gasol and perhaps the ubiquitous Odom as candidates to go up against Superman. Howard must establish himself early for the Magic, particularly if Bynum is starting, and get in a rhythm before frustration and fouls set in. The Lakers, after seeing what happened when Howard saw too much single coverage in Game 6 against Cleveland, are probably going to come with a lot of help defenders and try to cut off passing lanes to deny him the ball. The Magic, as has been well documented, are prone to going away from Howard for long lengths of time, so if the Lakers can do what they can to discourage his teammates from passing him the ball, he might go a long time in between touches. That will be especially true if the Lakers can use their length to limit Howard from collecting the gargantuan 15.4 rebounds a game he's pulled down throughout the playoffs.

The benches would seem to indicate an advantage for the Lakers on sheer volume alone, since they can easily go 10 players deep. Each team has its three-point marksman, namely Sasha Vujacic for L.A. and Redick for Orlando. The Magic have an effective backup center in Marcin Gortat, while the Lakers have Luke Walton, a resourceful player who has started for the team in the past and can be a pest defensively on Turkoglu or Lewis.

The Lakers greatest edge still revolves around Kobe, and his ability to take over games in a myriad ways. They'll need him to play at his best not just for points and assists but for his energy and ability to spark his teammates as well. He is, just as he seemed so eager to be when Shaq was around, the single most important person for the Lakers. He's longed for the opportunity to power his team to a championship. Staring the ravages of age in the face as he competes in his 13th NBA season and approaches his 31st birthday, this may well be his best chance left for a ring. He's not letting it go.
Prediction: Lakers in 7.

Game 1 - Thu June 4 Orlando at L.A. Lakers 9 p.m. ABC
Game 2 - Sun June 7 Orlando at L.A. Lakers 8 p.m. ABC

Game 3 - Tue June 9 L.A. Lakers at Orlando 9 p.m. ABC
Game 4 - Thu June 11 L.A. Lakers at Orlando 9 p.m. ABC
Game 5 * Sun June 14 L.A. Lakers at Orlando 8 ABC
Game 6 * Tue June 16 Orlando at L.A. Lakers 9 ABC
Game 7 * Thu June 18 Orlando at L.A. Lakers 9 ABC

Los Angeles Lakers
PG Derek Fisher
SG Kobe Bryant
SF Trevor Ariza
PF Pau Gasol
C Andrew Bynum
F Lamar Odom
PG Jordan Farmar
G Sasha Vujacic
G Shannon Brown
SF Luke Walton
PF Josh Powell
C D.J. Mbenga

Orlando Magic
PG Rafer Alston
SG Courtney Lee
SF Hedo Turkoglu
PF Rashard Lewis
C Dwight Howard
G/F Mickael Pietrus
PG Anthony Johnson
C Marcin Gortat
SG J.J. Redick
F/C Tony Battie
PG Tyronn Lue
C Adonal Foyle
SG Jeremy Richardson
PG Jameer Nelson (separated shoulder, questionable)