To help breakdown the Orlando Magic's game against the L.A. Lakers (10:30 PM, Sun Sports, ESPN) this evening, I called on Andy Kamenetzky of Land O' Lakers, ESPN's Lakers blog for ESPN Los Angeles. Andy was kind enough to answer four of my questions; you can see the flip side of this exercise at ESPN L.A. Onto the questioning:
Evan Dunlap, Orlando Pinstriped Post: The top seed out West is assuredly the Spurs', but the Lakers and Mavericks are in a solid battle for no. 2. How do you see that race playing out? Can L.A. threepeat if they have to play three playoff series on the road, as they'll have to if they slip to no. 3?
Andrew Kamenetzky, ESPN Los Angeles: This has been the talking point for the season once some bad losses -- not to mention the Spurs refusing to slow down -- made crystal clear home court advantage throughout the playoffs was a pipe dream. I'm in what I suspect is the minority amongst fans and media, but I think the Lakers can absolutely win a championship playing three consecutive road series. To me, it's much more important how the Lakers are playing entering/during the playoffs than where. Assuming this current level is maintained, I just don't see a team this seasoned and experienced getting thrown for a loop by the prospect of one fewer game at Staples Center.
The Lakers closed out two series on the road last season. They won the 2009 championship in Orlando against a team I felt was more competitive than the 4-1 series would indicate. And conquering the pressure-cooker of last year's Game 7, where they overcame a 13-point deficit at and Kobe Bryant uncharacteristically wigging out, provides a more tangible confidence than home court, in my opinion. People always say the Lakers couldn't have won that game in Boston. That may be true. But I also think it's irrelevant, because last year's team isn't this year's team, and the current version is incredibly blessed for having experienced that grind.
I'm not saying the quest doesn't become more difficult on the road, but winning a title is rarely a walk through the daisies to begin with. Plus, this team often responds best with a higher degree of difficulty and their backs against the wall. Whether because of an ability to handle pressure, a periodic tendency to make life tougher than necessary (or both), it's just how this team is wired, and successly more often than not.
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ED, OPP: I know he's missed some time with a knee injury, so his impact has been diminished, but how is Matt Barnes doing in L.A.? A lot of Magic fans seem to believe he would have really helped Orlando this season.
AK, ESPN LA: I thought Barnes would be an excellent fit when the Lakers signed him this offseason, and he has still managed to exceed my expectations. The areas where I knew he'd flourish -- offensive rebounding, moving without the ball, continuous energy -- were as good as advertised, but I underestimated the overall impact. For example, not that he's the second-coming of Steve Nash, but Barnes' ball-handling and play-making skills were better than I ever gave him credit. His willingness to remain in perpetual motion often left him in the right place at the right time for easy scores, which made his triangular learning curve less of an issue.
On the whole, he's outplayed Ron Artest and often stole key fourth quarter minutes from the starter. Artest has since turned things around (knock on wood), but when Barnes returned last week, a lot of fans wanted him to get the starting gig.
I haven't seen enough of Orlando's games to quantify how much Barnes would have helped this season, but if he played like this, I can't imagine him hurting the cause.
ED, OPP: Kobe Bryant's playing the fewest minutes per game of his career since he became a starter. Is that a product of Phil Jackson wanting to keep him fresh for the postseason, or have the Lakers simply not needed him for extended minutes because they're blowing everyone away?
AK, ESPN LA: Actually, I think the biggest factor has been Barnes on board, believe it or not. Over the last couple seasons, the goal has always been to reduce Kobe's minutes whenever possible. Dude ain't getting any younger. Last year, however, Luke Walton's persistent injuries and Adam Morrison's decided "13th man" status left Ron Artest with no consistent backup. Thus, the job went to Kobe, which cranks up his PT. This necessity offset the 20 nightly minutes Phil Jackson grew confident giving Shannon Brown in relief of Kobe.
With Barnes on hand and playing extremely well, more rest for Kobe became a realistic goal. To further illustrate this point, if you look at his splits, his highest monthly total came in February, a month Barnes missed entirely. Not a coincidence.
Obviously, an NBA 5th-best differential (+6.3) has also helped buy Kobe more breathers, but the viability of reducing Kobe's minutes has been considerably greater this season.
ED, OPP: In the first meeting between these teams, Orlando won pretty handily and it didn't look to me as though L.A. was ever really engaged. That game started a three-game losing streak for the defending champs. Was that game an anomaly, or do the Magic really present, in your estimation, so many problems for the Lakers?
AK, ESPN LA: Not to discount the Magic, who thoroughly whupped the two-time defending champs, but as I wrote in my postgame breakdown, I think fatigue was a big factor.
The Lakers looked physically drained from top to bottom, and I wonder if a dead-legged Kobe, who played horribly the next game in Charlotte, was feeling the effects of an impending flu. Mentally, they were also out of it. For example, one would have expected Pau Gasol to start attaching his body on Dwight Howard's after the 50th time Superman went backdoor for an uncontested alley oop. Not so much, it turned out. The Lakers also shot a comical 46.7 percent from the line, which only happens if your entire rotation consists of Chris Dudley cloned.
Of course, give credit where credit is due. Howard was a monster, particularly in the second half. The Magic crushed the Lakers on the boards. They also played very hard all game and took what was in front of them. But I do think there were extenuating circumstances. In terms of anything "revealed" or "exposed," I don't think much emerged.
Should the Lakers lose again tonight, I'll open myself up to more possibilities and offer the Magic a heartfelt apology.
Thanks again, as always, to Andy for his time and consideration. Tonight's rematch of the 2009 NBA Finals airs at 10:30 PM on Sun Sports locally and ESPN nationally.