It's On: 2009 NBA Finals Preview
It's finally here. What began in October will be over in a mere seven games as the Lakers and Magic fight for the right to hold the Larry O'Brien trophy. While that's an intriguing matchup, there's an even more important battle of the ages to pay attention to: Hoopsdaily's Jon Pastuszek vs. Mike DeStefano.
Think of them as two lawyers in the case of their lives. Mike DeStefano will be representing the Los Angeles Lakers while Jon Pastuszek will speak on behalf of the underdog Orlando Magic.
Let's get right into it.
What is each team's main advantage in this series?
JP: If the NBA were an African Serengeti, David Stern would be Zazu from "Lion King," the refs would be zebras (Dick Bavetta would be the slowest, worst zebra the herd has to offer), Sean May would be a hippopotamus, and the Magic would be a pack of hyenas. They scavenge for threes and can take down any enemy. They're intelligent, adaptive, and dangerous when they work together. They're also cast in a negative light.
Nobody has given the Magic a shot all year, but they've gotten the job done nonetheless. And they've done it with balance on both ends of the floor. On defense, Orlando's strong guards give nothing easy to the opposition; their long forwards are able to close out on shooters and chase them off the three-point line; and the man in the middle, Dwight Howard, roams the paint and swallows up everything that is funneled his way. Offensively, everyone but Howard is interchangeable. They can all pick-and-roll with each other and take advantage of potential mismatches. Using precise movement, they exploit these matchup problems and put constant pressure on defenses to rotate swiftly. Then, on the block, Howard has evolved into a dominant, almost unstoppable force. Power and finesse, grace with clout.
Keep underestimating them. No one expected this pack of hyenas to take down the King (James) of the Jungle, but at the end of the day, their balance as a unit gets the job done.
MD: The NBA: Where Comparing David Stern to Zazu Happens. I would argue that balance is the Lakers' biggest strength as well. In his press conference after dismissing the Cavaliers with the greatest of ease, SVG pointed out that his reward was preparing for Kobe Bryant instead of LeBron James. The problem is that the Magic can't defend the Black Mamba the same way they defended James because Mamba's team has far more weapons.
First of all, Howard didn't have to guard his man in the last series because the Cavs have no post presence; he was free to simply clog the middle whenever he saw LeBron make his move to the paint. Howard will have to pay far more attention to All-NBA 3rd Teamer Pau Gasol.
After that, either Lewis or Turkoglu will have to guard Lamar Odom or Andrew Bynum. Both of those matchups favor LA; Odom is stong enough to take advantage of either of those two, and Bynum is too big. If they opt to put Howard on Bynum when he's out there, Rashard or Hedo will struggle with the Big Spaniard.
And then, there's Kobe. Bryant is a far more versatile scorer than James is, and while he won't put up the numbers that LeBron put up last series, there's simply no one on the planet that can guard him.
JP: By no one on the planet, I hope you mean with the exception of James Posey, Paul Pierce, and the 07-08 Boston Celtics. They held Kobe to 25 PPG on 40% shooting and subsequently won in six games.
MD: The Magic have to hold Kobe to similar numbers if they are to have a chance at winning this series. All I'm saying is that Orlando's plan can't be as simple as packing the middle and forcing other Lakers to hit shots. Bryant won't have the ball in his hands as much as James, and he'll be catching it in different spots where he can be a threat: mid-post, pick-and-rolls, dribble handoffs and Isos on the wing...he will make them do a variety of things to try to stop him. While the Great Debate (#23 vs. #24) won't be settled this series, I believe the Magic will have more trouble with Bryant because:
- Bryant has a better post-game (in the form of a Jordanesque turnaround jumper) than James.
- He's got a better midrange game and a more consistent outside shot.
- He physically doesn't know how to miss a free throw this postseason.
JP: The way to contain Kobe (and the way they beat LeBron) is to have five guys in front of him at all times, cut off penetration, and contest every shot. It's not that easy, but that's the formula. They close out on Kobe's outside shot and force him into Superman's lair. The problem is Kobe is smart enough to get the ball at the right time in the right spots and punish this type of scrambling defense.
MD: Exactly. Both Courtney Lee and Mickael Pietrus (especially Pietrus) are gifted enough physically to give Kobe trouble, but in the Triangle, Kobe can pick his spots and move without the ball. And if he's not getting good shots, he won't have a problem letting Gasol, Odom, or Ariza carry the load while he waits for his opportunities.
JP: Pietrus and Lee are both good on-ball defenders, and I think Kobe will have to work for his points. Then again, Kobe is the best scorer in the League, so I'm not certain Orlando's system can really slow him down. He averaged 34.5 points, 10.5 rebounds, and 7 assists per game against them in the regular season.
MD: Well, to Orlando's credit, he only shot 42% from the field, and LA lost both games. That being said, the playoffs are a different animal (to keep with your jungle theme), and Kobe's supporting cast has been good throughout the playoffs.
Conversely, what is each team's main disadvantage in the series?
MD: I guess it's the same problem that every team has with the Magic: matching up with Turk and Lewis. I think the Lakers are better suited to do it than the Cavs were, but that means Bynum and Gasol will not be able to be on the court at the same time. Neither one of them can guard Lewis or Turkoglu. Ariza is a good fit to guard Hedo with his length and athleticism, and Odom should do fine on Lewis.
JP: The Lakers cannot afford to go big against Orlando. Wth Bynum and Gasol, whoever Pau guards puts LA at a huge disadvantage. Furthermore, I think Orlando would be fine defensively against that lineup. Lewis could do a serviceable job on Pau, and if they want to put Howard on Gasol, both Lewis or Turkoglu could guard the timid giant, Andrew Bynum. That's definitely a lineup LA should stay away from. Gasol-Odom-Ariza is where it's at for the Lakers.
MD: But can Gasol guard Howard? I know he'll do a better job than Varejao and the Cavs - overtime of Game 5 was laughable as Dwight dunked left and right - but still.
JP: As the Celtics demonstrated, the best way to guard Howard is one-on-one and stay home on shooters. Unlike the Cavaliers, the Celtics had the personnel (Kendrick Perkins) to do that, which is why they came close to knocking them off. I think the Lakers have the players to do it, with Bynum and Mbenga especially. On the other hand, Perk is one of the best low-post defenders in the League while Bynum has been awful and Mbenga doesn't remember the last time he played significant minutes.
MD: There's a chance you'll see more Mbenga in this series; he's strong and athletic, and at worst, he has six fouls to waste on Dwight. Still, I think their best bet is sticking with Pau and hoping he can make Howard work on both ends of the floor. Like you said earlier, LA can't afford to go big because Lewis will have a field day.
JP: It's ultimately going to come down to Dwight. He's got to decide he wants to dominate the series, not just one or two games. If he is driven to dominate, Phil Jackson will have to come up with something other than single coverage to stop him.
MD: I say stick with Gasol on Dwight, straight up. Let him get 40 if he can. His size and athleticism are great advantages, but he doesn't have the refinement and polish in the post to put up those kinds of numbers on a nightly basis. He has no jump shot, and that running hook shot is as likely to break the backboard as it is to go in. When Gasol needs a rest, Bynum has the size to bother Howard, and if Bynum isn't up to the challenge, Phil should call Mbenga's number. On offense, the Lakers would have to play 4-on-5, but that shouldn't be a problem for Kobe.
JP: ANYWAY...the biggest disadvantage for the Magic is simple: the Lakers have been here before, and the Magic hasn't. Though not necessarily a zero-sum game, the fact that almost every Laker was here last year gives them an edge. While the Magic may have to fight off Game 1 jitters, the Lakers will be poised and collected.
I also want to mention the home court advantage, which could be huge with the 2-3-2 format of the Finals. If Orlando is facing elimination in Game 6 in LA, I don't think there is any way the Magic could win two in a row. They must steal one of the first two at Staples and win two at Amway.
What is the key matchup?
MD: For the Lakers, it's Derek Fisher vs. Rafer Alston. Fisher's been here five times and won three titles with Kobe. He hasn't been particularly good this postseason, but he needs to take advantage of his experience. Alston started hitting shots at the end of the Cleveland series, showing us how good the Magic are when he plays well. The Lakers cannot afford to have Alston outplay their point guards.
JP: The key matchup for me is Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu vs. Whoever They Guard. Both have been relatively lucky this postseason because they haven't had to play much defense. Paul Pierce was slow and tired in the Semis, and Sasha Pavlovic, Ben Wallace, and Anderson Varejao are not offensive threats.
LA has two guys that Hedo and Rashard might have to guard that could cause serious problems: Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol. Both are very talented, and let's face it - neither Turkoglu nor Lewis are known for their defense. It'll be interesting to see how Van Gundy chooses to defend those two players.
I don't know if this is a good thing or a bad thing for the Lake-Show, but they need Lamar Odom to have a good series. Based on his talent alone, there's nobody on Orlando's roster that can guard him. If he plays well and slaps up double-doubles consistently, Lakers win this series. But, with Lamar, that's a huge if.
Another point: how will the duo's offense be affected by having to expend energy on the other end of the floor? Suddenly forced to play defense, their offense could suffer.
(Editor's Note: For more matchups, check out HD's Positional Breakdown.)
Outside of each team's Big Three, which player is most key to this series?
JP: I'm going with Alston here. When he's scoring and raining threes, Orlando is extremely hard to beat; they are 9-2 this postseason in games where Alston hits at least two threes. And when Rafer is skipping up the court and pushing the tempo, it adds another dimension to an already versatile Magic offense. If he can pick his spots and get out in transition, he makes everyone else's jobs a little easier.
MD: I mentioned the Skip-Fisher matchup earlier, so I'm gonna go with Trevor Ariza here for the Lake Show. He's been on fire from downtown all postseason long, which stretches the defense and makes life simpler for Kobe and Pau. If you leave him open, he's hitting threes at a 50% clip. If you close out too hard, he has the athleticsm to put the ball on the floor and attack the rim. With how prone to foul trouble Howard was last series, that could be important.
On the other end, he's a dynamic defender who literally stole two games from the Nuggets in the final minute of play. The defense and energy he brings are what's most important to the Lakers - neutralizing Turkoglu would be huge. After that, if he's hitting threes, it's just gravy.
Who's got the better bench?
MD: The Lakers have gotten a lot of credit over the past two seasons for having the best bench, but I haven't seen it recently. The only one that has really contributed is Odom. Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown really need to step up their games. Brown has shot the ball well and could see a lot of time against Anthony Johnson due to his size. These guys really need to outplay Orlando's backup PGs because Jameer Nelson hasn't played in months, and Johnson simply isn't a good basketball player. I will not be swayed otherwise.
Also, Luke Walton and Sasha Vujacic need to do something more than a combined 7 points in 29 minutes per game. Sasha needs to knock down shots and get under people's skin; Luke just needs to use his versatility to provide good minutes when he spells Gasol or Odom.
JP: The Lakers' bench has absolutely taken a step back this year. Last season, it not only held onto leads; it expanded them. This year, they can't hold leads at all. Something happened with these guys - complacency, a sense of entitlement, cockiness, contract extensions...it could be anything. Whatever it is, these guys clearly aren't the same unit they were during last year's Finals run.
Going only three deep (four if you include Nelson), Orlando may not have the flexibility of LA's second squad. Regardless, this group is solid and knows its role. Pietrus provides good one-on-one defense and hits threes; Anthony Johnson takes care of the ball and scores a little; and Marcin Gortat fills the lane, get dunks, and blocks shots.
MD: Gortat has really been impressive. However, I'm pretty sure a one-armed Jameer Nelson is better than Anthony Johnson.
Who's got the advantage on the sideline?
MD: I don't think anyone will sit here and try to say that Stan Van Gundy is a better coach than Phil Jackson. More entertaining? Sure. But Shaq's "Master of Panic" is not on Jackson's level. Furthermore, Jackson has been here ten times and won nine of those; Stan is in uncharted territory and will be nervous. The problem is that, unlike SVG, Phil might be too calm, letting his team dig themselves huge holes and refusing to rescue them with a timeout. It's like throwing your baby into a pool and saying, "Figure out how to swim on your own." He can't do that against the Magic; they shoot the ball too well and can put the game out of reach at any point. Similarly, if the Lakers get a big lead (something that tends to happen to the Magic), they can't take their foot off the gas. All of this falls on Jackson as much as it falls on his players.
JP: Get out of the history books, Mike, and join us in the present. Phil's had an unparalleled coaching career, but he's been off his rocker all postseason. (Wait, actually, he hasn't. He just sits on his Hip Throne all game long. My bad.) It took the Zen-Master seven games to realize that, without Yao Ming, the Houston Rockets didn't have anyone taller than 6'8. Jackson fuddled around with a small-ball lineup when he should have just gone with what won for him in the finale: Gasol, Bynum, and Odom.
And while Phil is struggling to get consistent contributions from his bench, Stan is getting all-out, butt-busting efforts from every player in his lineup. Here are a few firsts: Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu are playing passable defense for the first time in their lives; Mickael Pietrus is shooting and locking up on a consistent basis; Courtney Lee is making major contributions in his first NBA postseason; Dwight Howard was Defensive Player of the Year. All of those are why Orlando is in the Finals for the first time since GZA dropped Liquid Swords.
Get the Ron Jeremy comparisons, the sideline antics, and the Shaquille O'Neal quotes out of your head for a moment and realize that SVG has been the best coach in the League all season long.
MD: The best coach in the League would have had an easier time with a weak Sixers team and a Garnett-less Celtics team that saw Ray Allen go ice cold. And it doesn't take a rocket scientist to say, "You know what? No one on the Cavaliers is good except LeBron. Let's pack it in." I'm not saying SVG's as bad a coach as, say, Mike Brown (he should thank LeBron James everyday for his Coach of the Year award), but Jackson's team has been better all year long in a more competitive conference and beat better teams in the playoffs to get to this point. The Lakers have two All-Stars and two others that are better than anyone on the Cavs, and SVG will have to make adjustments. If he can't, this series will be short and sweet.
P.S. It took an angry Dwight Howard in a brightly colored sweater at a post-game press conference for Stan to realize that he should give his seven-foot manchild the ball once in a while. Genius.
MD: Last year, the Lakers took a very good Celtics team to six games with an injured Andrew Bynum and an invisible Lamar Odom. Both those guys are healthy and contributing this year, and everyone else will benefit from the experience they got in '08. They have the best offensive player on the planet, and they have the personnel to handle the Magic mismatches better than any of Orlando's previous opponents. This team is hungry to avenge their loss last year, and Kobe will not allow them to lose this series.
Lakers in 6 (maybe 5)
JP: The Lakers got a taste of the Finals last year and are back to soothe their hunger. Furthermore, they have the length to play with the Magic, the home court advantage, and Kobe Bryant. There's a reason why the Magic are underdogs.
But, I believe in Magic. More importantly, Stan Van Gundy and the Magic players believe it, too. From Shaq's "Master of Panic" to SI's feature that knocked Dwight for being "too soft" to critics and experts dismissing them as a cute bunch of jump-shooters, the Magic have all the motivation they need to prove everyone wrong.
When nobody gave them a chance in Game 7 in Boston, they won. When nobody gave them a chance against LeBron, they throttled the Cavs. Nobody is giving them a shot against the Lakers. They are in familiar territory - territory they thrive in. If Orlando can steal one of the first two at Staples - something they did in two of the NBA's toughest arenas in Boston and Cleveland, then they have a real chance.
Orlando in 6
Jon Pastuszek can be reached at email@example.com.
Mike DeStefano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For a more in-depth look at the positional breakdowns, check out Dan Stanczyk's Finals Preview.