By Chris Le
I honestly haven’t thought about this matchup since the Conference Finals ended last week. Not for one second. I’m still somewhat in disbelief at how easily Orlando dispatched of LeBron and his Cleveland Cavaliers. Forgive me, Dwight and Carmelo, but I was just so amped to see KOBE VS. LEBRON!!! on the court and in some new puppet commercials, that any other outcome (in this case Kobe vs. Dwight) simply would not register in my head. I was in denial, maybe even a little bitter. To be honest, I’m still not quite over it, but I’ve come to accept that these NBA Finals feature the hated Lakers and the spoiling Magic. And now that I’ve taken some time to think about the teams’ contrasting stylistic idiosyncrasies, I’ve also come to believe it will be, dare I say, an entertaining series — even if it still pales in comparison to Kobe vs. LeBron.
So, now that everything is set, who will win?
Let’s look at the Tale of the Tape, one position at a time.
Derek Fisher has been horrible this postseason. He’s showing his age, playing as slow as molasses (I think he’s still dizzy from guarding Aaron Brooks) and shooting an atrocious .355 from the field and .235 from three. But he’s been on this stage before, knows what it takes to win a championship and I’d be surprised if he makes any critical offensive mistakes. But on the defensive end … yeesh. He’s gonna be in trouble.
Rafer Alston, despite his mediocre shooting percentages, has had a decent playoffs. He has the quickness to beat Fisher off the dribble on more than a few occasions, but I question his basketball IQ. Alston will routinely leave you scratching your head by jacking up questionable shots instead of setting up the offense and distributing to teammates. The Lakers will play off Alston, and he’ll have to prove he can consistently nail an open jumper before they consider him a threat from deep. Still, even with a helter-skelter trigger finger, he can be more of a difference maker than Fisher at this point in their careers.
There are hints that Jameer Nelson will make a cameo, and if he’s hovering around 80 percent, he’ll make an impact on the series. He absolutely demolished Fish during the regular season and was the Magic’s key to victory. Think of the beating Aaron Brooks gave Fisher, cubed.
Kobe is gonna be Kobe. The best offensive player in the league will get his when he needs to, but it won’t be effortless. Enter Mickael Pietrus. The number he did on LeBron was eye-opening. Pietrus has the strength and the adequate lateral quickness to keep Kobe from freely driving to the hoop; any penetration into the paint Kobe will have to work for, and if he does get by his defender, he’ll be meeting the Defensive Player of the Year at the rim. I like Pietrus’s physicality, and I loved his ball denial against LeBron, and I expect him to do the same to Kobe, who won’t be able to comfortably receive the ball in his favorite spots — he’ll have to go get it out in the perimeter. This is all you can really ask of Air France: deny Kobe the ball and stay in front of him. He’ll want to reduce Kobe to a jump shooter, and I see him having at least some success. But if Kobe’s shot is on point, there’s nothing he can do beside put a hand in his face and pray. And unlike LeBron, Kobe has some decent teammates who can guard Turkoglu and Lewis, so he won’t need to expend much energy on the defensive end.
Courtney Lee is negligible on offensive, unless he unearths his three-point shooting (.267 against Cleveland, .400 during regular season). Where Lee can show his worth, however, is on defense. He’ll start games guarding Kobe, and he’ll hold his own. But come on, let’s be serious, Kobe is not losing any sleep over this matchup.
Edge: Lakers, and it’s a big one.
Trevor Ariza is a pesky son of a bitch. He’s found a knack for making game-deciding plays on defense, (but you could credit this to the Nuggets’ horrible inbounding) and he has emerged in these playoffs as a must-defend three-point shooter. With his size, athleticism and versatility, he’ll draw the assignment of defending Hedo. The key may be his decisions on pick-and-roll situations, but he’s got the requisite skills to make life hard for the Turk, especially compared to the undersized matchups he saw against Cleveland. You gotta think Ariza’s confidence is at an all-time high. He’ll need it in this series.
Hedo Turkoglu is the Magic’s most valuable player. He’s a point-forward in the mold of Scottie Pippen, and he makes the Orlando offense as dangerous as it is. He’s a deadly three-point shooter (who isn’t on this Magic team?), has good enough handles to drive and finish or dish and most importantly, is a great decision maker. His series against Cleveland was a bona fide masterpiece. His every decision on pick-and-rolls was the correct one; he nailed the shots the defense gave him, he slashed every time the Cavs switched and he never failed to find an open teammate lurking behind the arc.
Pau Gasol is perhaps the most skilled big man in the NBA. The Spaniard can nail outside shots and free throws, has a mother’s touch around the rim, can rebound at a prolific rate and is capable of hurting a team in the post (though I question the last two when up against a physical defender). But where Gasol really shines is with second-chance opportunities. He’s always in position after a drive to suck in an offensive rebound or tap in an easy putback. He’s the ultimate garbage man and a glorified one at that. But it’s a requisite that Andrew Bynum box out Dwight Howard, who gobbles up any and all rebounds within his exceptional reach, if Gasol is to see any success at feeding off his teammate’s leftovers. He sizes up favorably against Rashard Lewis and should have his way on the block.
Lamar Odom is a starter who doesn’t start. He’ll play 30+ minutes and finish games, especially if he performs like he did in the back-end of the Denver series. His ability to score outside and inside, and his productivity on the boards could prove to be the Magic’s back-breaker. If Odom can routinely score against Hedo, he’ll free up Bynum and particularly Gasol, whom I think the Magic may look to double-team when bodied up by Lewis.
Rashard Lewis. I don’t know what got into him against Cleveland, but he looked like Reggie Miller, hitting one clutch bomb after another. I mean, it was ridiculous how many daggers he nailed. I don’t see why he’d cool off now. At the start of games, Lewis will be a HUGE mismatch on offense, drawing the slower Gasol outside his comfort zone of the paint. Gasol will have to contest every single three-point attempt, but that’ll leave him vulnerable to drives by the swifter and more agile Lewis. That’s why Odom, who can adequately defend Lewis, will get a lot of minutes at power, shifting Gasol to center, leaving Bynum out of the lineup, freeing up Dwight. Uh-oh. But the advantages Lewis has on offense may be offset by his difficult defensive assignments.
Andrew Bynum hasn’t recorded a single double-double in the playoffs, and at this point, I think Lakers fans would be happy if he averaged 8 points and 5 rebounds — and I’m being serious. He’s played passive and soft against Yao Ming and Nene, and that won’t do against the league’s best defender and top rebounder. Learning from the Cleveland-Orlando series, the Lakers will single-cover Dwight Howard and secure the perimeter, leaving Bynum on his own against D12. This is bad news. I have a feeling in a number of games Bynum will account for more fouls than points. With Bynum having trouble suppressing the ref’s whistles, Gasol will have to try to handle Dwight all by his lonesome. Talk about a boner-shrinker for the Lakers.
Dwight Howard has blossomed into a superstar and has bumped his way into the “if you could pick one player to start a franchise” debate alongside LeBron. Dwight, even with an arsenal that consists only of dunks and flat hook shots, will devour anyone the Lakers throw at him, facing up and circumventing Gasol and creating contact against Bynum in the key. On defense, Dwight will do what he’s done all season long: hold down the paint, mainly to defend Kobe’s slashing attempts, since I don’t think anyone else has the balls to challenge Howard at the rim. But with Pietrus in the way, pushing Kobe out of the lane, Howard won’t have to worry too much about foul trouble. Kobe will more frequently throw up shots than go to the hole.
Edge: Huge edge for the Magic.
I’ll say it again ad nauseum: Styles make fights — and this is a series of lopsided position battles for both teams. Much like their series against the Cavs, I think the Magic have the personnel to beat the Lakers. They have mismatches, particularly at point and center, which they can exploit, but the key to a Magic victory is how they defend their own defensive disadvantages. If Orlando is still red-hot from three and if they can hold Gasol in check and force Kobe to shoot a low percentage, they can take this series. I also think the Finals 2-3-2 format can work in their favor. The Magic can win on the road — they’ve proven so in these playoffs — and it’ll be tough for an up-and-down Lakers team to win two games at Orlando. Then again, the Magic’s most valuable player Hedo tends to play better on the road …
If I were the Lakers, I’d bench Bynum and start Gasol at center and Odom at power. It’s their only lineup that can defend the Magic. Like LeBron’s, if Kobe’s supporting cast shows up, (I’m looking at you, Lamar, Derek and Sasha) they’ll be hard to beat. Odom’s productivity versus that of Hedo Turkoglu will prove to be significant; keep an eye on their numbers. I think it comes down to a Game Seven, and I’m not betting against Kobe in that situation with his legacy at its tipping point.
Prediction: Lakers in seven.