Kevin Pelton previews the NBA Finals on ESPNews Tuesday evening at 6:15 p.m. EDT.
On January 16, the Orlando Magic went into the Staples Center and handed the Los Angeles Lakers a 109-103 defeat. Dwight Howard controlled the middle with 25 points and 20 rebounds, while Jameer Nelson carried Orlando down the stretch, his 15 fourth-quarter points capped by the go-ahead three-pointer inside the final minute. The win moved the Magic to 32-8, a game ahead of the Lakers in the standings.
When I sat down to write about the need to take Orlando legitimately as a title contender later in the month, that win in Los Angeles was one of several that provided ammo for my argument. Alas, mere hours after my column went up on the morning of February 3, the Magic made it official that the torn rotator cuff suffered by Nelson the night before would end his season.
Even after Orlando acquired veteran Rafer Alston minutes before the trade deadline, the loss of Nelson seemed to doom the Magic's title hopes. The Cleveland Cavaliers emerged as the class of the Eastern Conference, a conclusion reinforced by the first two rounds of the playoffs. As Cleveland swept its way to the Eastern Conference Finals, Orlando struggled more than expected with a Boston Celtics squad missing Kevin Garnett.
For the Lakers, the destination is what we expected entering the season. The path did prove a bit bumpy, however, most notably in a seven-game series against an undermanned Houston Rockets squad. Even in the playoffs, the Lakers have been a very different team from game to game. At last, we saw the Lakers dominate the final five quarters of their Western Conference Finals series with Denver to reach the NBA Finals in convincing fashion.
The ups and downs, particularly on the Magic side, make this a most difficult Finals series to pick. To help reach a conclusion, let's take a look at the matchups.
WHEN THE LAKERS HAVE THE BALL
Pace: 93.6 (6th NBA) Regular Season, 90.8 (4th) Playoffs
L.A. Lakers Offensive Rating: 114.5 (3rd) Regular Season, 113.2 (3rd) Playoffs
Orlando Defensive Rating: 103.0 (1st) Regular Season, 104.7 (2nd) Playoffs
Orlando led the NBA in Defensive Rating during the regular season, then backed up that performance by shutting down a potent Cavaliers offense during the Eastern Conference Finals. Now, the Magic gets an even greater challenge in facing a Lakers offense that, at its best, is better than any in the NBA. Note the key qualifier there, since the Lakers were third in Offensive Rating in both the regular season and the playoffs (trailing Denver and Dallas).
Efforts like their smoking-hot Game Six against the Nuggets remind us just what the Lakers are capable of doing when they are hitting on all cylinders. That has a great deal to do with ball movement and role players hitting their shots. That means Trevor Ariza and Derek Fisher, and the two have gone in opposite directions in the postseason.
Time and again, Ariza has made opposing defenses pay for leaving him open on the perimeter to offer help or to double-team stars Kobe Bryant or Pau Gasol. Ariza has made an even 50 percent of his three-pointers, averaging nearly two a game. Meanwhile, Fisher has suffered through the longest shooting slump of his NBA career, hitting 23.5 percent of his three-pointers to offset the good work done by Ariza. Teams still seem somewhat unconvinced of Ariza's prowess, continuing to rotate off of him and not Fisher. Expect Stan Van Gundy to emphasize to his charges the importance of making Fisher prove he has ended his slump.
If Fisher struggles, one key question in this series is whether Phil Jackson will be willing to pull his trusted veteran point guard from the lineup. Fisher is still averaging 26.8 minutes per game in the playoffs, with Shannon Brown and Jordan Farmar splitting backup minutes. Both have had their moments, though Farmar has the best net plus-minus of the Lakers' point guards.
Besides Fisher, the Lakers could also use some help from Sasha Vujacic. Last year, "The Machine" played an integral role as the Lakers reached the Finals, and he had a huge Game Three against Boston. Vujacic has averaged but 3.8 points per game in this year's playoff run, hitting an embarrassing eight of his 37 two-point attempts (that's 21.6 percent, if you're scoring at home).
In addition to ball movement, the Lakers' solid finish against Denver can also be attributed to the re-emergence of Lamar Odom. Odom was terrific in the first round against Utah, but a serious back contusion suffered in Game Four of the series with Houston knocked him off track. Odom did not seem to recover, at least offensively, until Game Five of the Western Conference Finals. He totaled 39 points and 22 rebounds in the Lakers' last two wins.
That, at last, brings us to the Lakers' stars. Bryant comes off two wildly different series. Locked up by Shane Battier and forced to settle for a series of inefficient two-point jumpers against Houston, he torched a series of Nuggets defenders before George Karl finally gave up and started double-teaming Bryant to take the ball out of his hands. Bryant then turned passer, handing out 18 assists over the last two games. In Game Six, he put it all together with 35 points and 10 assists, one of his best all-around performances in the playoffs.
MickaŽl Pietrus has gotten the toughest defensive assignments for the Magic the last two rounds, making both Paul Pierce and LeBron James work for their points. It remains to be seen whether Pietrus or rookie Courtney Lee will spend more time on Bryant in this series. Lee's style of defense, more technical than Pietrus' use of his athleticism and physicality, may be a better match for Bryant. It was Lee who was largely responsible for holding Bryant to 11-for-26 shooting and six turnovers in the Jan. 16 win in L.A., with Pietrus sidelined for that game. (Bryant did have a triple-double, contributing 13 rebounds and 11 assists.) Surely, both players will get their chances against Bryant, giving him two very different looks.
Gasol might be the most important player for the Lakers in the series because of the importance of his matchups at either power forward or center. The second key question for Jackson is how he deploys Odom and Andrew Bynum against Orlando's frontcourt. Either way, the matchups are much better for the Lakers than they were for either Boston or Cleveland, both of whom struggled to match up with Rashard Lewis.
Odom is a long, quick tweener forward in a similar mold to Lewis who will help neutralize him on offense. At the same time, Jackson may prefer to play big and create mismatches at both ends. While Gasol will have a tough time chasing Lewis around the perimeter, he has a tremendous advantage in the post, something neither the Celtics nor the Cavaliers (with non-post players Glen Davis and Anderson Varejao, respectively, at power forward) could exploit. Gasol must play in attack mode when matched with Lewis and force the Magic to bring a double-team that he can pick apart with his passing ability, the hope being that Gasol's offense will outweigh what he gives up as a power forward on the other end.
WHEN ORLANDO HAS THE BALL
Pace: 91.4 (13th) Regular Season, 88.7 (6th) Playoffs
Orlando Offensive Rating: 111.7 (9th) Regular Season, 112.0 (5th) Playoffs
L.A. Lakers Defensive Rating: 106.1 (5th) Regular Season, 106.1 (4th) Playoffs
At its best, the Magic offense forces opposing coaches to make a Sophie's Choice of sorts: Allow Dwight Howard to roam free against a single defender in the paint or commit help (either via a double-team or by bringing in a third defender to help against the pick-and-roll) and surrender open three-pointers. Throughout the Cleveland series, the two halves of the Orlando offense worked perfectly in concert, beating the Cavaliers from both inside and outside.
Having demonstrated the kind of force he can be on offense, Howard now faces the challenge of showing he can sustain that level of finishing ability. The Lakers are as help-conscious as any team in the league, so opportunities for Howard to play one-on-one should be relatively rare. That means Howard must continue to make the right decisions and get the ball to the Magic's shooters without turning it over. At his best, Bynum has the athletic ability to stay with Howard, but even when healthy he had five fouls in 12 minutes in the Lakers' Dec. 20 loss at Orlando, a game in which Howard shot 15 free throws. At this point, Bynum is clearly nowhere near 100 percent, continuing to be up and down in his level of play.
Howard can physically overwhelm Gasol with his strength when the Lakers go small, an advantage mitigated by help defense. The bigger concern for the Lakers with a Gasol/Howard matchup will be having their All-Star big man get into foul trouble and be unable to contribute at the other end.
Besides Howard, the most important Magic player in the regular-season series was Nelson, who torched the pick-and-roll defense that is the Lakers' Achilles heel to the tune of 27.5 points and 78.4 percent True Shooting (!) in two games. On Sunday, the Orlando Sentinel reported that Nelson could potentially play in the NBA Finals as his shoulder rehabilitation has progressed well--but only if Nelson passes what GM Otis Smith described as "a litany of tests." Even if Nelson is able to play, it's tough to see him being a big contributor four months after he last saw the court.
Orlando has managed to replace Nelson by committee. Alston is the focal point, but Anthony Johnson deserves credit for picking up his level of play (considered a weakness as the backup to Nelson before his injury, Johnson has been rock-solid in the playoffs) and Hedo Turkoglu has helped by picking up additional ballhandling duties and even playing the point for lengthy stretches in the playoffs. This will be the trio's biggest test yet, because the Lakers' defense practically demands teams attack them at the point. Neither Alston nor Johnson is a strong pick-and-roll option at this point of their careers, so Turkoglu at the point could emerge as the best option for Van Gundy, allowing him to keep both Lee and Pietrus on the floor. Alston has been a reliable floor general in the postseason, but he will have to demonstrate again his ability to knock down open threes. Surely the Lakers, like Cleveland before them, will find Alston the least dangerous shooting option for the Magic.
Let's address the general issue of three-point shooting here, for it is a critical point in this series (one addressed in depth by FanHouse's Tom Ziller). As detailed in an Every Play Counts early this season, the Lakers play aggressive help defense (though toned down slightly after the season's first couple of weeks) that dares opponents to shoot the three. And shoot from downtown they did; one in every four shots against the Lakers was a three-point attempt, the league's fourth-highest rate. In a testament to the Lakers' defensive rotations and length, opponents managed to hit just 34.5 percent of those shots, the third-best defensive three-point percentage in the league.
That quality rotations aren't always enough is demonstrated by the Cavaliers, who in fact led the league in three-point percentage defense at 33.3 percent in the regular season. Lo and behold, the Magic burned up the nets with 40.8 percent shooting from downtown and more than 10 threes a night. Orlando made 12 three-pointers in each of its regular-season wins over the Lakers and shot 41.4 percent from beyond the arc. That's tempered slightly by the fact that the biggest culprit was Nelson, who hit seven three-pointers in 12 attempts in the two games.
As discussed in the Lakers section, the Magic must make the Lakers pay for the Lewis/Gasol mismatch. Gasol is not used to defending on the perimeter, giving Lewis an opportunity to take the ball at him off the drive. I might even consider using Lewis as the ballhandler in some pick-and-rolls, putting Gasol in the uncomfortable position of trying to get through a screen against a dangerous shooter. (If the Lakers switch, all the better--that means Gasol trying to defend Howard in the post.)
Elsewhere, the matchups look favorable for the Lakers. If they finish with an Odom/Gasol frontcourt, they have solid defenders at the two (Bryant), the three (Ariza) and the four (Odom) to match up with the Magic players most capable of creating from the perimeter. Cleveland spent the Eastern Conference Finals shifting LeBron James around to plug holes like the Little Dutch Boy. Jackson can be much more comfortable in the matchups.
In hindsight, Orlando's upset win in the Eastern Conference Finals looks more predictable because of the importance of matchups in the postseason. The Magic had won the season series 2-1 and convincingly so. Orlando's upset means every playoff series so far has been won by the team that won or tied the regular-season series, a trend the Magic certainly hopes continue, having swept the Lakers. This time, however, the evidence isn't as strong in Orlando's favor. The two wins were both close, coming by a combined nine points, and the Magic relied heavily on the production of Nelson. The odds of him matching that even if he does play--or any of the other Orlando point guards replicating it--are long indeed.
This time around, the matchups are not so strongly tilted in the Magic's favor. When the Lakers go small, they match up very well indeed--with the notable exception of the middle. While it's possible to envision a scenario in which Howard is too much for either Bynum or Gasol to handle, the shooters make their shots and the Orlando defense is solid enough to hold the Lakers at bay, the more likely scenario is that Howard will come back to earth slightly after his back conference finals and the Lakers' offense will prove more potent than the Cavs' attack did.
The Lakers were my pick in October before the season started, they were my pick in April at the beginning of the playoffs, and despite testing my faith at times the last month and a half, they remain my pick to win the championship now.
L.A. Lakers in 6.
Kevin chats about the Finals today at 1 p.m. ET at Baseballprospectus.com.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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