It’s the 2008-2009 NBA Finals and this season sees the number three seed in the East, the Orlando Magic (59-23), meet the number one seed in the West, the Los Angeles Lakers (65-17). The Magic beat the Philadelphia 76ers in the initial round, the Boston Celtics in the second and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Lakers took it to the Utah Jazz, Houston Rockets and Denver Nuggets.
Keys for the Orlando Magic
1) Dwight Howard: The big guy has to stay out of foul trouble and continue to play tough defense. Thus far in the playoffs he’s averaging 2.22 blocks per game. On the offensive end, he’s been true to form, averaging 21.7 points per game and hitting 62% of his shots from the field. Howard is the team leader and juice that gets things done.
2) Three-pointers: In the playoffs, the Magic have had great success from downtown. Although the team’s three-point average is down from the regular-season rate of .381, it’s still at the highly competitive mark of .367. Five players are hitting between 35 to 39% of their attempts from beyond the arc.
3) Free Throws: The club’s charity stripe rate in the playoffs is at 73%. That’s not quite as good as the Lakers, but it’s close. Still, it could be a deal breaker when it comes to winning close games. They need to pump up that number by a few points. .
4) Backcourt “D:” Guards Rafer Alston and Courtney Lee have booth been adept at putting pressure on opponents and stealing the ball. If they can do the same to the Lakers that will help slow down the game, giving the Magic an advantage.
5) Utilize Turnovers: Once the team forces a turnover make it payoff. That’s all there is to it. Orlando has to make the most out of any and every opportunity that they’re given.
6) The “KB” Factor: Okay, so can the Magic neutralize Kobe Bryant and if they do will they pay for it somewhere else on the court? Let’s say where Pau Gasol may be lurking.
The wild card for the Magic is small forward Hedo Turkoglu. He’s constantly shown improvement in the playoffs and has hit big three-pointers and grabbed a load of rebounds. By raising his game to a new level, he’s helped Howard underneath and the team as a whole.
Keys for the Los Angeles Lakers
1) Kobe Bryant: Talk about starting with the obvious, but it’s hard not to here. Bryant continues to be a massive, all-around player, putting in 29.6 points, grabbing 5.3 rebounds , making 4.9 assists and stealing 1.72 balls per game. In the Denver series he hit 48% from the field, 34% from beyond the arc and 93% from the foul stripe.
2) Lakers’ Frontcourt: Both Gasol and Lamar Odom have been powerful presences in the paint. Gasol is averaging 2.0 blocks per game and Odom is managing 1.44. Together, they’ve averaged 20.8 rebound per contest. Small forward Trevor Ariza has shown good hands, completing an average of 1.50 steals per game. The team’s frontcourt defense will be important in this series.
3) Control Hedo Turkoglu: He’s been a major factor in the Magic’s success and for the Lakers the problem is that he can hit from the paint, from medium range and from downtown. If the Lakers can shut him down, they’ll have a much easier time making this a short series.
4) Once They Are Down Don’t Let Them Up: The Magic are a resilient team and you simply don’t want to give them any opportunity to rally. That means that the Lakers need to stay focused in and play every minute of this series.
5) The Magic of the Magic: By that, I mean Orlando’s ability to hit threes when they need them. The Lakers want to do a few things. Play tenacious defensive in the perimeter and make sure that Orlando gets very few second shots on a possession. Steals, blocks and rebounds are key.
6) Complacency: Sure you’re the Los Angeles Lakers and sure you won the Western Conference in the regular-season and in the post-season, but that doesn’t mean that the Orlando Magic are going to hand you anything. I do believe it is the Lakers series to lose, but that means that they can lose it if they simply go through the motions. Orlando actually has very little to lose since no one expected them to be in the NBA Finals. That makes the Magic extremely dangerous.
The wild card for the Lakers is Andrew Bynum off the bench. The center has been ailing, but he’s still made some important contributions when he’s played. When a player like Bynum enters a game as a reserve that puts a lot of pressure on opponents. They get no rest. Bynum can break a team’s back by hitting a few shots, blocking a few others and sitting down to let either Odom of Gasol come back into the game.
It certainly looks like the Lakers series to lose. They enjoy home court and that’s huge in any NBA series but it is especially big in the Finals. The Magic, though, are capable of stealing a game from an opponent at home. They did it against Boston twice and once in both the Philadelphia and Cleveland series. But Los Angeles is a whole other venue and the Lakers are a whole other team.
Look for this series to go five games with the Lakers taking it. If the Magic can stretch the series to six, taking one of the first two in Los Angeles, then Orlando will be in the catbird seat. But I just don’t expect that to happen.