Will the Magic upset the Lakers? Almost
Orlando handled L.A. twice this season, but the Finals might look a little different
Supposedly, last year taught me a lesson: Unlike the message in those mutual fund warnings, past results in the NBA are indicative of future results. In particular, we saw during the 2008 NBA Finals that regular-season outcomes do matter when it comes to postseason matchups. The Celtics' 2-0 sweep of the Lakers was a pretty good indicator of what was to come when the teams met in June, as Boston took the title in six games.
And now the Orlando Magic, who went a combined 6-3 against Boston, Cleveland and the Lakers during the 2008-09 regular season, are two-thirds of the way toward validating those numbers in the postseason, having already dispatched of the Celtics and now the Cavaliers.
And yet I'm still picking the Lakers to beat the Magic in seven games in the NBA Finals.
For starters, a couple of observations about those two regular-season games, which the Magic won 106-103 in Orlando on Dec. 20 and 109-103 in Los Angeles on Jan. 16.
One, Jameer Nelson was the leading scorer for Orlando in both games, torching the Lakers for a total of 55 points. He was another one of those quick point guards who have torn up L.A. throughout the season. But Nelson suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in February and won't be around to exploit the Lakers' biggest weakness. Midseason pickup Rafer Alston has had some effective games during the playoffs, but he won't lead the Magic in scoring this series.
Two, the Magic shot 40 percent or better on 3-pointers in both games, exceeding even their regular-season average of 38 percent. And they will have good shooting nights in the Finals. But will they have four of them?
Meanwhile, there are some other factors I'm focusing on.
The first is the Stage Fright Factor, the adjustment to playing in the Finals for the first time, as all of the Magic's top players will be doing. They'll see that this is not just another game. It will hit them the moment they step into the arena, with the banners and bunting hanging everywhere, the giant stickers on the court, the multitude of cameras affixed to the backboards, the reporters swarming around, the NBA Entertainment cameras in their faces from the breakfast table to the trainer's room.
I consider the Stage Fright Factor to be worth one game. Here's what has happened in Game 1 the past 11 times a batch of Finals newcomers faced a group that had been there before:
2007: Cavaliers lost to Spurs
2002: Nets lost to Spurs
2001: 76ers beat Lakers
1997: Jazz lost to Bulls
1996: Sonics lost to Bulls
1995: Magic lost to Rockets
1993: Suns lost to Bulls
1991: Bulls lost to Lakers
1990: Trail Blazers lost to Pistons
1988: Pistons beat Lakers
1986: Rockets lost to Celtics
That's a 2-9 record for the newcomers. (Roll the Nick Anderson free-throw clip.)
And we know another big Game 1 stat: Lakers coach Phil Jackson is 43-0 when his team wins the first game of a series.
Back to these two teams. Expect the Lakers to foul Dwight Howard and stick to the plan more diligently than the Cavs did. He shot 15 free throws in the first game against the Lakers and 16 in the second. In this case, it's actually a blessing for the Lakers that Andrew Bynum has not been more effective in these playoffs; if he uses all six fouls against Howard, the Lakers won't lose a vital part of their attack.
But the Magic can use Marcin Gortat and Tony Battie in addition to Howard to counter Pau Gasol and Bynum. They'll be able to throw Mickael Pietrus on Kobe Bryant, as Pietrus did a stellar job of covering LeBron James.
The big question about the Lakers -- which version will show up on any given night? -- won't be an issue when they face the Magic. It sounds strange to say this about a team so reliant on the outside shot, but it's the more consistent of the two squads. Five of the Magic's seven playoff losses have come by four points or fewer, and four of them have come on shots in the final two seconds. If they fall behind early, they fight their way back in. And now that the Magic have improved their fourth-quarter shot selection, they won't make the same mental errors that doomed the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference finals.
Magic versus Lakers brings less hype than LeBron versus Kobe but more intrigue. There's more to them than just one superstar. Do you concentrate on stopping Howard or worry about the outside shooters? Do you play Hedo Turkoglu for the outside shot or the drive? Go big to try to pound them inside, or go small to cover all their shooters?
And finally, should we go with the Magic's record versus the Lakers or the Lakers' success against everyone else?
I'm going against the regular-season stats and focusing on what the Lakers showed against the Nuggets. They finally played defense. Gasol got a little edgier, Bryant got a little more generous with the ball and Jackson got some signs of life from the role players. If Lamar Odom, Trevor Ariza, Shannon Brown and Luke Walton can pop up and get some podium games (which happen when role players excel enough to be invited to the interview room), they will supplement the game or two that Bryant will win on his own and propel the Lakers to a championship.
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