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)

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