With the Orlando Magic ready to take on the Los Angeles Lakers tomorrow night in the NBA Finals, I think now is a good time to take a look at the keys to the series.
I wish I could address all of them (there's so many), but it'd be way too time-consuming. It's important to note that this list is an overview, and its items are not ranked in order of importance.
Dwight Howard Needs To Dominate, Again - Heading into the NBA Finals, Dwight Howard has favorable matchups against the Los Angeles Lakers. The two big men expected to log major minutes defending Howard are Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol.
During the regular season, Bynum struggled against Howard, getting into foul trouble on December 20th and getting out-rebounded 20 to 3 on January 16th. It's no secret that Howard has been a shell of himself since returning from injury on April 9th, with his inconsistent play being exacerbated by the inconsistent amount of playing time Lakers head coach Phil Jackson has been giving him in the postseason. Unless Bynum pulls a complete 180, there's no reason to believe Howard will not continue to have success against his fellow high school peer.
If or when Howard is able to get Bynum into foul trouble, or when Jackson elects to play small (which he will do), then Howard will face off against Gasol head-to-head. This will be a curious matchup to see unfold because Howard has a clear athletic and physical advantage against Gasol on offense. It's imperative that Howard gets his opponent in foul trouble to minimize some of the advantages Gasol has on offense, himself. Howard thrives roaming around the paint and zoning his area on defense. This is something Howard has had success doing throughout the playoffs.
However, if Gasol plays center, than Howard will be forced to account for him around the perimeter, which might open things up for Los Angeles in the lane. Look no further than two years ago on February 8th when Gasol had an excellent game against Orlando, netting 30 points and 9 rebounds playing the center position. Now, that game should be taken with a grain of salt because the circumstances are different, the teams are different, etc. However, it's a good reference point.
This is a potential problem the Magic may have to deal with during the series. In the end, it's almost a catch-22 situation when you think about it. Howard should try to get Bynum in foul trouble, but if he does, then that creates a matchup advantage for the Lakers with Gasol on offense. The only possible solutions, in that case, would be for Howard to get Gasol in foul trouble too. But expect Gasol to do the same versus Howard. Also, Rafer Alston may have to come down and double-team Gasol.
Yes, Gasol is a beautifully skilled passer in general and out of double teams but you would think Orlando would rather take its chances with Derek Fisher, who's been struggling shooting-wise for Los Angeles, than allow him to get going offensively.
Here's a quick glance at what Pau can do on offense:
Rest assured that the Magic will play much better defense than the Denver Nuggets did against the Lakers.
Looking at these matchups fascinates me because of the different dynamics in play. David Steele said it best to me yesterday in an interview, "it's a chess match."
That's the beauty of basketball.
After the jump, three more keys to an Orlando victory.
Exploit and Limit Pau Gasol - I've talked about Rashard Lewis many times before during the playoffs and in different keys to the series, so no need to regurgitate the same information over and over. It gets repetitive. One knows the matchup advantages Lewis has over Gasol, which are the ability to a.) drive to the basket b.) execute the pick & pop/roll and c.) spread the floor and shoot from the perimeter. However, if or when Lamar Odom guards Lewis, those advantages will most likely be nullified.
There's no doubt that Gasol will be the most talented and skilled big man Orlando will face in the playoffs, from an offensive standpoint. Gasol is no Glen Davis.
Despite popular belief and from what I've been reading and watching, Rashard Lewis is going to be able to defend Gasol effectively. For whatever reason, there still is the perception out there amongst the general public that the Magic consist solely of a defense centered around Dwight Howard, with the rest of the players filling in the gaps. This is not true at all. As I've pointed out before and as Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus has pointed out before, Lewis is an underrated defender.
defensive adj. plus/minus
opponent PER vs. PF's
defensive net plus/minus
Since switching to the power forward position last season, Lewis has been able to adapt and adjust to defending PF's on a nightly basis. Lewis has the athleticism to step out & cover perimeter-oriented bigs and has the strength to put a body on physical-oriented bigs. Lewis' versatility on defense is overlooked, which is a shame, because his ability to play more than competently on D has allowed Orlando to exploit the many mismatches on the court offensively.
If Gasol (or Odom) is matched up on Lewis, don't expect him to have his way on offense. One of the reasons why the Magic were able to sweep the season series against the Lakers was the fact Lewis was able to defend Gasol with effectiveness. Yes, Jameer Nelson played a big role. Yes, Kobe Bryant dominated the ball, but the basic premise remains true. Lewis has the ability to check Gasol on defense.
Make Kobe Bryant Beat You - The idea and strategy sounds insane, make a former MVP and an elite shooting guard beat you, but for Orlando, it's something the team may have to consider, when taking into account certain factors.
Look, there's no doubt that Bryant is going to get his numbers. Bryant is a great player and that's what great players do, but the Magic do have the personnel to slow him down a bit. Courtney Lee and Mickael Pietrus are solid defenders that go about their business in different ways, defensively. For example, Bryant shot 10-26 (38.5%) from the field and had 6 turnovers on January 16th against Lee. Remember, Pietrus was out during that time with an injury.
|defensive adj. plus/minus||+1.16||-4.55|
|opponent PER vs. SG's||15.1||15.7|
|defensive net plus/minus||+1.1||-3.1|
|defensive adj. plus/minus||+2.18||+2.33|
|opponent PER vs. SG's||15.0||11.3|
|defensive net plus/minus||+2.0||+2.3|
Just looking at the numbers and observing how Lee and Pietrus stack up defensively, it'd be better if Pietrus guarded Bryant because he has the athleticism and size to bother him. There's no denying that Pietrus has been playing better defensively than Lee.
The reason why Orlando should let Bryant have his way is because that takes away from the playmaking ability of Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, etc. Los Angeles is at its best offensively when the ball is moving around and the triangle is being utilized. The Lakers get in trouble, however, when the ball stops and Bryant begins to dominate the action on the court. Defensively, that plays into the Magic's hands.
Orlando did a great job of "suckering" LeBron James into playing one-on-one basketball, as the team elected to play him straight-up nearly the entire time. In turn, that took away James' ability to get his teammates involved because the Magic were able to limit their effectiveness or shut them down completely. I would expect Magic head coach Stan Van Gundy, who's a smart guy, to opt for the same strategy against Bryant and try to seduce him into playing 'by himself' & not allow him to get his teammates involved. Again, looking back at the regular season, that's how Orlando was able to win both teams. Bryant dominated the basketball offensively and limited the effectiveness of Gasol, etc.
Above is a quick run-down of the win/loss splits for Kobe Bryant and his teammates. Notice a pattern?
Pick & Roll, Please - The Lakers struggle defending the pick & roll. The Magic succeed running the pick & roll. Do I really need to say or show any more than that?
But I will.
I will note that L.A.'s problems, in this example, is exacerbated with a quick point guard (the type of players the Lakers struggle with) like Aaron Brooks. But again, the basic premise remains true.
Los Angeles, when the team is on its game, has the most dynamic and explosive offense in the NBA, despite the fact the squad finished 3rd in offensive efficiency in the regular season. Orlando, as a result, needs to match the Laker's firepower. The Magic are more than capable of doing so. The players just need to, execute. Again.
Hitting the three-ball, early and often. Tom Ziller of NBA FanHouse pointed out, in great detail a few days ago, Los Angeles' defensive principles and strategies allow Orlando the opportunities to get open looks from beyond the arc.
The Lakers, despite giving up so many 3s, have been able to mitigate the problem in two ways (beyond causing turnovers and denying penetration): L.A. has great length and speed, and the defenders leave weaker shooters. Between Bryant's intelligence and speed and Trevor Ariza's incredible athleticism, the Lakers defense has been able to hold down the third best 3-point shooting percentage defense in the league, behind only Cleveland and (ahem) Orlando.
But if you're leaving Orlando's shooters open to execute the strong side zone (or, in other cases, to double Dwight Howard on the block), you can't rely on make-up speed. Why? The Magic have great length at every spot. Pau Gasol or Ariza won't bother a Rashard Lewis 3. (I'm not sure Manute Bol on roller skates could bother a Rashard Lewis 3.) Not even long Lamar Odom will be challenging Hedo Turkoglu's shot. Looking deeper, Mickael Pietrus should be able to pull the trigger no worries. J.J. Redick (if used) has a quick trigger, so daylight before the rushing closer might be enough, even if he's 6-foot-3 or 6-foot-4. The Lakers have length, but it's mostly concentrated inside. Against a team so reliant on the 3-pointer (no one took a great share of shots from deep), that's not as useful as it normally would be.
To counteract this, Jackson might choose to single-cover Howard and stay home with the shooters, a strategy that the Philadelphia 76ers and the Boston Celtics chose to exercise during the playoffs. That's why it's important for Howard to dominate on offense and force Jackson to elect to double-team him, that way the perimeter opens up a bit more.
People may jump on the idea that the Magic have gotten this far in the playoffs by plain luck and streaky shooting, but I would point you to the numbers, which prove otherwise.
Orlando really started off the postseason slow from beyond the arc, but the team began to get into rhythm against the Boston Celtics and the Cleveland Cavaliers. I would suspect the Magic to continue to shoot at or better than its current rate.
Examining the matchups and the numbers for the past few days, this is an intriguing series to predict. Although the Lakers do indeed matchup well with the Magic, more so when Los Angeles proceeds to go small with Gasol at center and Odom at power forward, that doesn't mask the aforementioned deficiencies of the team - allowing open three-pointers, struggling to defend the pick & roll, etc. Both teams have advantages depending on the matchups. I wish I could list them all.
Kelly Dwyer of Ball Don't Lie points out that the Magic need to stay home defensively. I doubt that'll be a problem, given that Van Gundy demands and expects that his players play straight-up on defense. If the Magic do decide to double-team, it'll be smart double-teams (at least, you would hope so). For example, don't expect Trevor Ariza to keep getting the open looks he's been receiving during the playoffs.
Orlando should probably do itself a favor and win Game 1 against the Lakers. Why? In his coaching career, Phil Jackson has a series record of 43-0 when his teams win the first game. The Magic need to split the first two games, in any case, so the team should make it the first game against the Lakers to avoid dealing with stacked odds once more.
If Orlando wants to win, the team has to split the first two games on the road, win (at minimum) two out of three back at home, and finish the deal in Game 6. No team in NBA history, in the 2/3/2 series format, has won a Game 7 on the road. The difficulty in accomplishing that achievement is the fact that the underdog has to win two consecutive road games in the 2/3/2 format, as opposed to winning one road game in a 2/2/1/1/1 format. The Magic have proven the numbers wrong before, but I can't expect Orlando to do the near impossible, again. Not against Los Angeles.
Are the Lakers, indeed, the favorites? Yes. But that doesn't mean that the Magic aren't capable of beating Los Angeles. If Orlando wins, it shouldn't be a surprise.
I know everyone has been demanding for my prediction, and here it is. I will say this, I'm with Ben on this one. I'm torn with picking the Lakers in 7, but I pick the ...
Magic in 6.