June 02, 2009
Silver Screen and Roll: Here is what you need to know about the recent history of the Orlando Magic and the Los Angeles Lakers: On one hand, the Magic beat the Lakers in both regular season meetings; on the other, both games were very close, and Jameer Nelson(notes) led the Magic in both games, averaging 27.5 points while shooting a combined 20-34 from the field and 7-12 from beyond the three-point arc. Other lineup changes, particularly for the Lakers, also make this matchup different.
All of which means that the past tells us essentially nothing about the future of this matchup.
But it's more than that. During the regular season, teams have little time to prepare for their opponents. The length of the season and the fairly rapid pace of the schedule force them to stick to a more general approach. Any adjustments for a specific team are minor and made on the fly.
The playoffs, on the other hand, are all about specific matchups — and assuming that the teams close out previous series with enough time to prepare for the next one (which both teams did), there is usually ample time to make much more significant adjustments, with the singular goal of beating a specific opponent.
That ability to prepare for one's opponent in ways that weren't possible in the regular season is vital to the Lakers, especially against the Magic. Against many teams, the objective is simple and the necessary adjustments are minimal. But the Magic are not your average team. Their unconventional style of play forces teams to adapt to them, to make significant adjustments to account for Orlando's unusual mismatches.
This means that the Magic pose a serious problem during the regular season, but one for which the Lakers can be better prepared going into the Finals.
Fortunately, these Lakers will have had more than just five days of down time to prepare them for the Magic. They also have the previous three rounds of postseason play, which I believe prepares them for the Magic much better than Orlando's previous opponents have prepared them for L.A. The Lakers' biggest weaknesses are lightning quick, penetrating point guards, physically tough front lines, and three-point shooting. However, the Lakers have already faced plenty of each, and have experience in making the necessary adjustments. Rafer Alston(notes) is not Aaron Brooks(notes), and he has struggled against the Lakers in the past. Meanwhile, aside from Howard's monster dunks, Orlando is more of a finesse team than others the Lakers have played, and I would give L.A. the overall "toughness" advantage at this point.
Three-point shooting, as it has been for every team the Magic have faced, will be a problem for the Lakers. Nonetheless, the Lakers had the third-lowest opponents' three-point field goal percentage in the regular season (34.5%), and the second-lowest in the postseason (31.3%). In fact, the Lakers are actually shooting better from long distance than the Magic in the playoffs, while also forcing their opponents to shoot worse.
Meanwhile, don't expect the Lakers do double very much on Dwight Howard(notes). By and large, Phil Jackson will live with Howard getting his, rather than allowing him to create for his teammates and initiate a flood of three-pointers. Much like playing the Lakers, allowing the Magic’s star player to dominate is actually preferable to allowing their entire offense to get going.
Speaking of matchups, a lot has been made of the matchups problems the Magic create for the Lakers — but not much has been said about the other side. Of course, Kobe Bryant(notes) is an obvious problem for any team — and Courtney Lee(notes) is not Shane Battier(notes) or Ron Artest(notes). Aside from the obvious, however, there are other matchups that will also be difficult for the Magic.
The Lakers bigs present as much of a challenge for the Magic to defend as Howard does for the Lakers. In fact, this will be the first time that Howard and the Magic have faced a team with an All-Star front line — Elton Brand(notes) didn't play in the first round, Kevin Garnett(notes) didn't play in the second, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas(notes) is essentially a freakishly tall spot-up outside shooter. Pau Gasol(notes), on the other hand, is an All-Star forward/center, Lamar Odom(notes) has near All-Star skills, and Andrew Bynum(notes) requires attention when he is on the floor. If Howard pays them the attention they deserve, L.A.’s slashers (Kobe Bryant, Trevor Ariza(notes), and Lamar Odom) will get good close looks at the basket; if he comes over to contest, Gasol and Bynum will be open for a quick pass inside. Against so many players capable of doing damage in the paint, Howard will struggle more than ever to stay out of foul trouble.
And what of Hedo Turkoglu(notes) and Rashard Lewis(notes)? Ariza is taller than Delonte West(notes) and quicker than Wally Szczerbiak(notes), and Walton was surprisingly effective against Carmelo Anthony(notes), who is quicker than Hedo and equally lethal from distance. Rashard Lewis will find Gasol (when he plays power forward) and Odom more than capable of meeting him on the perimeter, and they both have the foot speed and size to defend him in the post.
Perhaps the biggest issue here is that this is the first team the Magic have played that is this good across the board. The Celtics were an injured shell of their former selves, and the Cavs were essentially a one-man team. The Lakers, on the other hand, are healthier and more physically talented than either the Celtics or Cavs, and they play in an offensive system that makes it difficult to stop them simply by focusing all defensive energy on one or two players. L.A. has not one, but two players who command a double team, and a whole host of other players who can take advantage when that double team comes. In the last two games against Denver, the Lakers have been taking better advantage of the doubles on Kobe and Gasol than ever. If they don’t come, the Lakers stars will run wild.
Lakers in 6 very tough, hard-fought games, and a victory in Staples Center thanks to unanticipated home court advantage.
Third Quarter Collapse: The Orlando Magic have two fairly big concerns in their NBA Finals matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers, despite being one of only two teams to sweep them this season. First and foremost is the presence of Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol, and Lamar Odom in L.A.'s rotation. The Magic have toppled some tough opponents so far in the playoffs, but none had the interior presence the Lakers have. Consider the post-oriented bigs with whom Orlando contended in the first three rounds of the playoffs: Samuel Dalembert(notes), Theo Ratliff(notes), Kendrick Perkins(notes), Anderson Varejao(notes), and Ben Wallace(notes). Hardly a murderer's row on offense, which is why Dwight Howard, the Defensive Player of the Year, is going to have his hands full. He'll also look to carry the Magic's offense, as he did when his team eliminated the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Conference Finals. Getting Bynum in foul trouble, as he did in the regular-season meetings, needs to be a top priority. Force the Lakers to play Gasol more at center, and maybe even give D.J. Mbenga(notes) a few minutes.
The second concern is that the Lakers, as Kelly Dwyer alluded to after they routed the Denver Nuggets to advance to the NBA Finals, have an intimidating efficient offense. Gasol is adept in the post, and a deft passer. Bynum contributes down low every now and again. Trevor Ariza, whom the Magic dealt to Los Angeles because of his lack of a reliable outside shot, is sinking treys at a 50% clip in the postseason. And, of course, Kobe Bryant is lethal from the perimeter and on the drive. They have options, the likes of which the Magic have not seen. It appears to me that their ceiling is higher than Orlando's. Further, the 6-foot-8-inch, lanky, athletic Ariza seems engineered specifically to shut down players like Hedo Turkoglu. If he stymies Turkoglu, and if Rashard Lewis has one of his occasional off-nights, the Magic are in deep trouble.
But none of this is to say Orlando doesn't have its advantages. I maintain that the power forward matchup of Gasol and Lewis actually skews in Orlando's favor, since Gasol is ill-equipped to chase Lewis on the perimeter, while Lewis has become a well above-average — but not elite — post defender. Howard can and will score against Bynum and Gasol, provided he can stay out of foul trouble himself. And as erratic as Rafer Alston is, there's no doubt in my mind he'll get the best of Derek Fisher(notes) in this series. Depth, too, favors the Magic. Mickael Pietrus(notes) has come up big in each of the Magic's last two playoffs rounds, while Marcin Gortat(notes) continues to provide quality minutes in relief of Howard. J.J. Redick(notes) only played 7 minutes total in the Conference Finals, but appears to be a better matchup against the Lakers, and could knock down some timely three-balls against the likes of Sasha Vujacic(notes) and Shannon Brown(notes). The Lakers, in contrast, have not gotten much out of their reserves save for Odom.
Before the Conference Finals started, I said I was off the Magic's bandwagon. I didn't believe they had what it took to handle Cleveland. After watching them control that series, I'm a believer again. A stronger one, anyway. Los Angeles is an excellent team, the odds-on favorite to take the Western Conference from very early in the season, and it's playing its best ball right now. Then again, so are the Magic. This series is a toss-up, in the truest sense of the term. I'm torn between "Magic in 6" and "Lakers in 7," so I'll go with the former, hoping I'm as right about this series as I was wrong about the Cleveland one.
Magic in 6.