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June 8, 2009
Playoff Prospectus
So Close

by Bradford Doolittle

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L.A. Lakers 101, Orlando 96, OT (L.A. Lakers lead series 2-0)
Pace: 86.5
Offensive Ratings: L.A. Lakers 105.6, Orlando 100.4

There were dozens of events that combined to set up Orlando's last-ditch inbounds play with 0.6 seconds left in Game Two in the NBA Finals on Sunday. However, it's that play, over in the blink of an eye, that will hang heavy in the collective conscious of Magic fans for a long time.

The play call by Stan Van Gundy was brilliant. With the Lakers overplaying Orlando's three-point brigade and sloughing off Dwight Howard to prevent the lob, Kobe Bryant was picked off on a back screen. Courtney Lee--likely the last concern of Phil Jackson's defense--broke free. Hedo Turkoglu threw a perfectly timed and placed lob pass right at the basket. Lee caught the ball cleanly. Pau Gasol moved over to help, too late it appeared. Lee banked the ball too hard off the glass and the shot caromed away off the rim, setting up overtime. As everyone bearing a Magic jersey or standing on the Magic sideline stood with their hands on their heads, you could see that overtime was going to be an uphill battle for Orlando.

Just like that, the Lakers became the fifth straight team to win the first two games of the Finals on its home court. The task remaining for Orlando after Lee's miss is daunting. Not only are the Magic now in a position of having to win three straight games over the league's best road team, but they face the unenviable psychological challenge of knowing it is impossible for them to win the NBA championship on their home floor. Such are the perils of the 2-3-2 format.

Game Two was a grinder from the start. During the first half, it was hard to believe that two teams that play such aesthetically pleasing brands of basketball could combine in such an ugly affair. Neither team was getting anything in the transition game. Both teams were sticking to their base offenses, running their schemes against two outstanding half-court defensive teams. So much of good defense is being in the right place at the right time and during the first half, you could count on one hand the number of times a defender was out of position or got switched into an unfavorable matchup.

Orlando actually shot the ball much better in the first half than it did in its epic brickfest in Game One. The problem was Orlando just couldn't take care of the ball. The Magic committed 20 turnovers in the game and the vast majority of those miscues involved Dwight Howard. Howard committed seven turnovers, many of them as he tried to pass out of double teams. Several other turnovers came as Orlando tried to force entry passes into Howard to initiate its offense. The Lakers were determined to prevent that from happening. Pau Gasol was effective at poking the ball loose from Howard with his Plasticman arms while Bryant, Derek Fisher and Lamar Odom caused havoc with their double teams. The two-man game with Howard picking high for Turkoglu was totally ineffective, with L.A. usually blitzing Turkoglu and the Lakers' weak-side defenders sagging to prevent Howard from rolling to the basket. The Magic was slow to reverse the ball and wasn't getting the open looks to which it is accustomed.

While the turnovers were keeping Orlando's offense down, the team's defense was keeping the Magic in the game. There was nothing fancy about it. Orlando threw everything in the book at Bryant, with Lee, Turkoglu, Mickael Pietrus and J.J. Redick all taking turns at Kobe in the first quarter alone. Bryant was fairly passive on offense for most of the game and ended up with 22 shots and 28 possessions used in 49 minutes of play. He did hand out eight assists, but committed seven turnovers. With Bryant reduced to mortal status, the Lakers struggled for offense. L.A. led by an unsightly score of 40-35 at the break.

Fortunately, the game began to loosen up in the third period. The Magic started pushing the ball and looking for early offense. It found it time and again in the form of Rashard Lewis, who scored 18 of his game-high 34 points in the third quarter. Lewis added 11 boards and 7 assists and was clearly the best player on the floor in Game Two. When L.A. came at him with Gasol, he fired away from outside. With Odom, he picked his spots, as Odom drifted at times with his help defense. On the few possessions when Trevor Ariza checked Lewis, Orlando went to him on the blocks.

On the other end, the Lakers had trouble contending with Orlando's big lineup that featured Redick at the point, Turkoglu at the two and a frontline of Howard, Lewis and Marcin Gortat. Finally, in the latter stages of the third period, Odom figured out that he could take Gortat off the dribble. That got Odom going and he hit several big shots in the latter stages of the game. Bryant also became more active, as you knew he would, and the Lakers withstood the first Orlando onslaught of the series.

Still, the Magic could have put the game away had they shot better from the foul line. Orlando was 20-for-27, but missed five in a row during one crucial stretch of the fourth quarter. The Lakers, meanwhile, hit 14 straight free throws and went 24-for-28 for the game. The difference is huge in a game that close and it's a heck of a reason to lose a game in the NBA Finals.

Gasol came alive in overtime, scoring seven of L.A.'s 13 points to close out the win. For the game, Gasol created 18 points on 22 possessions and didn't get an offensive rebound in 44 minutes of court time. Nevertheless, the Lakers were much more effective with him guarding Howard. Andrew Bynum again got into foul trouble but, really, it was to the Lakers' benefit. Odom's game-best +10 on the plus/minus scale is evidence of that. Bynum did have a couple of nice post moves, but with five fouls and one rebound in 16 minutes, he was hardly a factor.

The unsung matchup that really swayed Game Two in the Lakers' favor was at the point guard position. After he played brutal basketball for the first three rounds of the playoffs, Derek Fisher has come back with two nice performances in the Finals. On Sunday, he created 13 points on 12 possessions and played outstanding help defense. As for individual defense, you have to give Fisher some credit for the fact that Orlando's point guards, (Rafer Alston, Jameer Nelson and Redick) combined to shoot 4-for-20 for the game. (Redick did play about half the time at the two.) Van Gundy has to get better production from his point guards, or this series is going to end sooner rather than later. Alston seems lost and his jump shot was way off on Sunday. Nelson is nowhere near in good enough shape to play big-time minutes. The lineup with Redick was pretty effective, but he's got to be a higher-percentage shooter. For a player sometimes referred to has college basketball's all-time greatest shooter, Redick had an awful hard time knocking down uncontested shots in Game Two.

Orlando found some things out in the second game which should aid them going back home. First of all, the pick-and-roll with Howard and Turkoglu just isn't working in the halfcourt. While the Magic might not want to abandon its bread-and-butter play completely, the offense was much more effective when playing fast and taking early looks. Howard is the game's best big man when it comes to running the floor and pushing the tempo should allow him to get some space to work. He has just one dunk in two games, which is amazing for a player that had a league-high 202 dunks in the regular season.

Still, the Magic now find themselves in the same position the Nuggets were in after blowing Game One of the Western Conference finals. No matter what happens, Orlando is now chasing that one game in L.A. It should have one. You hate to fit poor Courtney Lee for a set of goat horns, but that last shot in regulation was there to be had.

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

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