Kevin Pelton: Well, Bradford, the NBA Finals begin tonight. I've already made my pick, going with the Lakers in six. Like last year, are we going to disagree about this with you backing the Eastern Conference squad?
Bradford Doolittle: In fact, we are. I'm done picking against the Magic. I've been waiting for the other shoe to drop on them for about a month now. Of the top-tier teams, Orlando has been the overlooked squad all season. Even my power ratings were slow to pick up on them because of a soft and home-heavy early schedule. I'm going to say Orlando in six. I'm saying six games because I don't think Orlando wins a Game Seven in L.A. They have to get it done before that--and I think they will. In your ESPNews segment Tuesday, you talked about the importance of the Lakers' role players hitting shots. Don't you think Orlando, with all those long defenders, is a bad matchup for those guys?
KP: I feel like I've been talking about this matchup for thousands of words, but you've hit on one topic I don't think I've really considered. You wrote about the Cavaliers' offensive woes against Orlando in the Eastern Conference Finals, and the question is how much of that is what the Magic did defensively and how much was Mo Williams and company just picking a really bad time to go through an extended slump. Orlando's rotations are generally airtight, but they haven't faced an offense that moves the ball as well as the Lakers do when they're playing well. The Lakers were able to find some cracks in the strong Houston defense and hit those shots in their wins in that series. We could see the ability to do that determine the difference between winning and losing here as well.
While we're talking about the Lakers' offense, which player do you think could cause the most problems for the Magic defense?
BD: If we're talking the non-Kobe Bryant division here, I think it could be Lamar Odom. He's the rare power forward who can match most of what Rashard Lewis can do as well as mix it up inside. I suspect he'll get a lot of run because I'm not sure how much Phil Jackson can play Pau Gasol alongside Andrew Bynum in this series. Whoever doesn't guard Dwight Howard is going to have to chase Rashard out to the arc and that could cause problems. Since we're talking Lakers offense right now, though, playing Odom next to Gasol gives L.A. the flexibility to have two players who can play inside/outside and keep Mr. Howard from planting himself in the lane. I think Odom is a real key.
The big question when defending L.A. is obviously going to be how you deal with Bryant. How do you see Stan Van Gundy's schemes shaping up in that regard?
KP: The way the Magic defends, it's going to be five guys involved with stopping Bryant. I see the first assignment going to Courtney Lee, however. Lee has had a bit of a secondary defensive role in these playoffs, aside from being assigned to shadow Eddie House in the Boston series. He's had an impressive season at the defensive end for a rookie and has shown poise beyond his years. He matched up well with Bryant in L.A. earlier this season. MickaŽl Pietrus then can relieve Lee and offer a very different style against Bryant at other times. I don't think Orlando will be particularly aggressive in terms of bringing help to Bryant, preferring to try to make him a scorer--at least from the perimeter--than a passer, but Howard is always looming in the paint to deter the threat of a drive. Expect Bryant's free-throw totals to be closer to what they were in the series with Houston (6.0 a game) than against Denver (12 a night).
One last question while we focus on the Lakers: If you were Phil Jackson, how quick a hook would you have for Derek Fisher, and who would you play behind him, Shannon Brown or Jordan Farmar?
BD: As long as Brown continues to hit almost half his threes, you have to give him a shot. Fisher has really been brutal in the playoffs (a 6.8 PER!), but his minutes aren't much different than they were in the regular season. He'll probably still play as long as Rafer Alston is on the floor. If I were Phil Jackson, I'd give Brown about 10 more of Fisher's minutes on average.
OK, let's flip sides now. Orlando has the ball. We're assuming that Van Gundy continues to run the offense through Howard as he has the last eight games or so. How does L.A. split defensive responsibility on Howard between Gasol and Bynum?
KP: I would imagine Jackson will try to get as many minutes as possible out of Bynum, depending on whether he is active and stays out of foul trouble. Still, Gasol will end up seeing most of the action at center, and certainly I'd expect Gasol and Odom to be the Lakers' frontcourt down the stretch. The underlying question is whether either of those two guys can contain Howard one-on-one and allow the Lakers to stay home on the shooters down the wings. Physically, Bynum has the better shot, but he's so inconsistent that I don't think the Lakers can count on that game to game.
If you were defending Orlando, would you rather give up post looks to Howard or open three-point attempts?
BD: It depends. If Howard is moving towards the basket off the high pick-and-roll, then you're in trouble if you don't help on him. However, if you can get him to set up on the blocks and play with his back to the basket, I think you have a chance to slow him down. So I'd cover up the three-point shooters because once those guys get rolling, Orlando is really tough. The guy with the best chance to body up on Howard is Bynum, but you have to have Gasol's offense and if you play them both, then one or other is going to be chasing Lewis. Tough call, but I suspect we'll see lots of Odom and less of Bynum. That's just my hunch.
What, if any, role do you see tempo playing in this series? These are both teams that like to get up and down the court, but who does a quick pace favor?
KP: Thanks to 82games.com, we can break down how this played out in the regular season. The Lakers were much less effective against slow-paced teams, so there may be an advantage to the Magic in terms of making this a half-court series and forcing the Lakers to score against their set defense. Overall, though, both teams have shown the ability to beat slow-paced and fast-paced teams in this postseason, so I don't see it as a major factor.
Much of the talk the last two days leading up to this series has been about the potential that Jameer Nelson might play. I'm on record being cynical about his ability to contribute if he does suit up. Agree?
BD: Agree completely. We've seen too many players coming back from injury over the years look slow, rusty and just generally out of sync. I don't see any way that Nelson, who has just one full practice under his belt, could be an asset in this series. I do like the idea of suiting him up and maybe bringing him out for a minute or two run at the opportune time. That could be a nice emotional lift for his teammates and it would be nice for him to get on the court for what could be Orlando's first championship run. I don't see him making a substantive contribution.
OK, let's bring this baby home. What do you see as the deciding factor or factors that lead you to favor the Lakers?
KP: Well, frankly, I think they're a better team. Now, I thought the same thing about the Cleveland Cavaliers, and we saw how that played out. Matchups matter in the postseason, and the Magic also played some of its best basketball of the season in the Eastern Conference Finals. Even though I don't think the matchups will be as problematic for the Lakers--in large part because Odom gives them the athletic power forward Boston and Cleveland lacked to match up with Lewis--if Orlando plays like that again it will be a short drive to Disney World for the celebration. If we look at the entirety of the season, especially after Nelson's injury, the Lakers are the superior overall team and I think that advantage will play out.
Finish us off by making the argument for the Magic.
BD: It's a hard position to defend statistically, but I think the Magic are just the kind of team that can exploit any shortcoming an opponent may have. I agree that Odom is a good matchup for Lewis, but then you're leaving Gasol to fend with Howard, which could (and probably will) mean foul problems for the Lakers' second-best player. Plus, I just think that Orlando has enough defensively on the perimeter to force Kobe into some inefficient performances; if he attacks the lane, then Superman will be there to slam the door. L.A. has been lethargic and inconsistent in the postseason and I see this as the series where that catches up with them.
Even if I'm wrong, though, I love this matchup. It's a hoops junkie's dream and the style of play should be great to watch. Let's get rolling!
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.