Saturday, May 30, 2009
Desperate Lakers Will Top Magic in Finals
Before we tackle the NBA Finals, we must first congratulate LeBron James for being a hero, even in ultimate failure. To see someone play so unbelievably well in a losing effort is both disheartening and something to admire. He played his ass off, putting up numbers reminiscent of a young MJ, and like young Air he deserved better than the outcome. But he never really had a chance. With Mo Williams playing poorly this postseason, Cleveland reverted back to the one-man team of yonder, er, the past five years. Didn't matter for two rounds against an expired Detroit and a Hawks team that didn't nearly stack up, but it did now against a troubling Orlando squad. It was already a bad matchup and now it was worse with LeBron forced to go 1-on-5. His absurd 39-8-8 over the six games wasted. A ridiculous 35-9-7 over 14 playoff games gone down the drain. But he gets none of the blame. In fact, he deserves a consolation prize. Stephen Jackson, anyone?
As for Lakers-Magic...wow. Who would have thunk it? Before the season began, no one thought of Orlando as a legit championship contender. After winning 59 games during the season, they still got no respect. Then few, Charles Barkley notably included, thought they had a shot against Cleveland. No head coach took more of a beating than Stan Van Gundy, roasted mercilessly by Shaq, called out by his best player in the Boston series. No franchise player took more heat than Dwight Howard, scolded for being too nice, mocked for his lack of post moves. Then he put 40 on the Cavs Saturday night. That's what makes their rise seem so premature and surprising, almost like it wasn't supposed to be - they seemed on the verge of imploding during that Celtics series, and Dwight didn't yet seem equipped to lead a team so far, especially if he had to go through a fully-formed superstar to get there. But here they are. The question is, How?
Once again, the answer is the matchups. Orlando is built around a big man and four perimeter players. It starts there. Howard controls the boards better than anyone since Rodman, protects the rim with urgency, and dunks everything if you don't wrap him up first (and center Marcin Gortat proves a reliable backup in limited minutes). Rafer Alston (and before him Jameer Nelson), Courtney Lee, Mickael Pietrus, Hedo Turkoglu, Rashard Lewis, Anthony Johnson, and, when called upon, J.J. Redick, surround him. They slash, pass, but most and best of all, they shoot it, 38 percent during the season and a whopping 10 per game. It is, by far, the most effective inside-out game in basketball, and it creates nightmares for other top teams.
The keys, I think, are Lewis and Howard. Lewis, the de facto power forward, completes the spreading of the floor, giving Orlando a fourth shooter. That's the small ball part of it. The difference between them and say, '05 and '07 Phoenix or '07 Golden State, is that it never seems to leave them at a disadvantage down low. Orlando will never be dominated on the boards with Howard in the paint, and he can protect the basket by his lonesome - plus Lewis drags traditional power forwards out on the floor, distorting their influence around the hoop, like he did against Varejao in the Cleveland triumph, and leaving Howard to have a one-man house party in the paint. When Cleveland focused their attentions on Howard, Lewis seemed to get lost behind the three-point line. It's like pick your poison.
I rooted against Cleveland in that series for a few reasons. 1) They were measured against L.A. so closely, and I didn't want them to struggle versus Orlando any less than the Lakers were against Denver, 2) I was scared of having to see LeBron for seven games, and 3) I was able to take solace in the fact that Orlando's two wins during the regular season came in very close ballgames, and that L.A. does have the homecourt advantage. I think L.A. has the potential to exploit the slender Lewis down low by force-feeding the 7-foot Gasol in the post against him - effectively canceling out Lewis' considerable mobility edge on the other end, something the Cavs couldn't do with Varejao. Or they can just start Odom - don't even really have to, he'll play big minutes with Bynum inevitably in foul trouble. They're better with him and Gasol at the big spots, anyway.
These are two pretty evenly matched teams on the court, but I think what will get L.A. over the hump is that they need it more. A fire burns in their belly since last year's Finals, it was under control, but it began to rage in Game 6 of the Denver series, as they could practically taste their rematch with destiny. They seem ready to play their best ball of the season, but if there is one thing I've learned over the last few years, it's that when a new series starts between two teams, nothing that happened before matters except the history between those two teams. And as I said, Orlando took both meetings during the regular season. At this point, it must be considered foolish to ignore regular season results when trying to gauge playoff contests.
So while L.A. looks ready to roll now, and they will be fully motivated, and they are a monster when filled with inspiration - does any of that matter against a team that simply matches up well with them? History says no. But I do think their exigency will come into play, at the very end, at what I envision to be the conclusion of the series: Game 6 in Cali, Lakers up 3-2. Their experience in this setting has helped get them a lead in a very competitive series. Now we're down to the very wire, fourth quarter, championship minutes, ballgame up for grabs. What stops it from going the seventh? The Lakers are too close, too hungry. They won't wait another game. They snatch it as if their lives depended on it. They make every big play and come up with every 50/50 ball because they have to, because they must throw water on the flames. Desperation, the literal deciding factor.
Of course, I hope the Lakers sweep. But at last we must give the Magic more credit than that.