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June 5, 2009
Playoff Prospectus
An Impressive Win

by Kevin Pelton

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L.A. Lakers 100, Orlando 75 (L.A. Lakers lead series 1-0)
Pace: 85.8
Offensive Ratings: L.A. Lakers 114.6, Orlando 89.0

There was a moment early in the second quarter when everything seemed to be going right for the Orlando Magic in Game One of the NBA Finals. Jameer Nelson, back after a four-month absence, handed out three assists and knocked down a midrange jumper in his first four minutes of action as the visiting Magic opened up a five-point lead and forced Phil Jackson to take a rare run-stopping timeout. Then everything fell apart in a turnaround as swift as it was complete. Over the final 32 minutes and 30 seconds of Game One, the L.A. Lakers dominated both ends of the floor, outscoring Orlando 72-42 to put together a convincing victory to open the NBA Finals.

We tend to think of Phil Jackson more as a motivator and a team-builder than for his Xs and Os skill, but the game plan he and the Lakers' coaching staff devised for Game One was excellent. They decided to take full advantage of Kobe Bryant's skills by keeping the ball in his hands, whether posting up the smaller Courtney Lee or running Mickael Pietrus off pick-and-rolls. Bryant scored 40 points and handed out eight assists (against just one turnover), taking the game over for extended stretches in the second and third quarters.

At the other end of the floor, the Lakers made effective use of double-team help on Dwight Howard and were able to take him away entirely as an option off the pick-and-roll. This meant surrendering some looks on the perimeter, but the Lakers used their length to contest those opportunities as well as reasonably possible. They benefited from a little luck in Orlando missing decent three attempts, but the Magic ultimately hit a respectable 34.8 percent from downtown. What killed Orlando was a complete and total inability to finish inside the arc; the Magic made 15 two-pointers all game (fewer than Bryant, with 16, had all by himself) and shot 27.8 percent on those attempts, which is appallingly poor.

With Orlando having a tough time doing anything right at either end of the floor, the game got away quickly during the third quarter, and the Magic never made much of a dent in the lead in the fourth quarter, leading to the team's worst loss since Feb. 18.

Let's start by dissecting the Lakers' offense. What's interesting is that, on some level, Bryant's game was exactly what the Magic would want. He got to the free-throw line relatively infrequently (eight attempts) and took a single three-pointer among his 34 shot attempts. Bryant was shooting virtually exclusively midrange twos, which is why he still was not especially efficient, scoring 40 points on 38 shot attempts. The strategy worked for two reasons. First, Bryant is simply the best in the game when it comes to making difficult shots. Second, he was able to take those shots from 12-15 feet instead of 15-20 feet, a crucial distinction. Bryant did that by backing down Lee in the post and because Orlando was not particularly aggressive in defending the pick-and-roll, preferring instead to lay back and keep Bryant away from the bucket.

Because Stan Van Gundy generally eschewed help on Bryant, the Lakers' role players were relatively quiet. Trevor Ariza attempted just four shots, Derek Fisher six, and the Lakers had a mere nine three-point attempts as a team. It will be interesting to see whether Van Gundy decides to force those players to beat him in Game Two, as his brother Jeff suggested on the air during the third quarter.

The Lakers also broke down the Magic's defense by getting in the paint, drawing help and then finishing at the rim or creating second-chance opportunities. Cleveland failed in this regard in the Eastern Conference Finals, never finding a way to take Dwight Howard out of the play and play against the other smaller Magic defenders. The Lakers' frontcourt was terrific on the offensive glass, securing 32.6 percent of available rebounds against the NBA's second-best defensive rebounding team.

Howard had a bizarre statistical line, attempting 16 free throws and just six shots from the field. He was able to draw a number of fouls on the Lakers' big men, especially Andrew Bynum, but was unable to finish in the paint the way he did in the Eastern Conference Finals, making a single field goal. More often, Howard was drawing help and kicking the ball out, making the right play. However, Pietrus (3-for-5) and Rashard Lewis (2-for-4) were the only Orlando players who were hitting from the perimeter. The starting backcourt of Lee and Rafer Alston combined for one triple in eight attempts.

More problematic for the Magic was attempting to drive when the Lakers closed out hard. They met stiff resistance in terms of help defense with long arms ready to contest shots. Lewis wilted under the defensive pressure, missing all six of his two-point attempts, and his teammates were hardly much better. Hedo Turkoglu was unable to supply the missing offense; he shot 2-of-8 on twos and created just two assists.

Initially, it appeared Nelson would be able to supply a spark on offense. After his initial burst of energy, however, Nelson proved ineffective. He handed out three assists in his first four minutes on the floor, then one over the next 19. Nelson shot 3-for-9 from the field, which actually made him a relatively effective shooter compared to his teammates. Nelson ended up with a -19 plus-minus, but it would be a mistake to read too much into that. The Magic proved equally ineffective with Nelson on the bench early in the third quarter.

More meaningful might be the plus-minus numbers for Lee and Pietrus. Van Gundy favored Pietrus as the matchup against Bryant, but Orlando was outscored by 23 points in Pietrus' 32 minutes of action, as compared to a -7 in Lee's 23 minutes. The Magic played even with the Lakers in the first four minutes of the second half with Lee on the floor before collapsing after switching shooting guards.

Making changes on offense will be difficult for Van Gundy because the Magic was so ineffective across the board. Orlando did seem somewhat content to go away from the pick-and-roll that has been the team's go-to play. Knocking down threes will also help the Magic offense in any number of ways by loosening up the Lakers defense.

We've seen all too often in this postseason that a lopsided win means nothing the next game. Even Orlando bounced back from its worse loss of the playoffs (Game Two at Boston) to win Game Three going away. The concern for the Magic, then, should be less about the outcome of this particular game than the fact that the Lakers have now played arguably their two best games of the playoffs back-to-back. They seem to have found the higher level of play we suspected they have had in them all along, and as long as they continue to play at that level they will be very difficult, perhaps impossible, to beat.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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