Magic's offense vs. Lakers' defense
• In the playoffs, Orlando has scored 107.8 points per 100 possessions, and Los Angeles has given up 101.8 points per 100 possessions.
• It's not hard to discern what Orlando is trying to do on offense. They want to establish Dwight Howard inside and surround him with shooters who are anxious to score when Howard is surrounded. This strategy has never been more evident, or successful, than against Cleveland, which simply had no one who could contain Howard by himself. So when Cleveland showed double teams (or even a third guy), Orlando hurt them with 3-pointers from all four starters and Mickael Pietrus off the bench.
• When the Cavs forced Howard to be a scorer, he easily obliged, especially in Game 6. Howard often faces up to best utilize his quickness and speed, and can make sweeping hooks or jump hooks with either hand. He's also a foul magnet, and since he shot more than 70 percent in the series, the Lakers may have to think twice about fouling him at all, save obvious dunk attempts. And Howard has improved a great deal at kicking the ball back out, but rotating to contest those shooters has to be done under control, since Orlando's perimeter specialists (including 6-foot-10 forwards Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis) are experts at shot-faking then either penetrating to the paint or hitting a mid-range jumper.
• If there is a team in the West that is best constructed to defend Orlando, it's Los Angeles. Inside, the Lakers have the long and crafty Pau Gasol, who can challenge Howard better than Zydrunas Ilgauskas can. Gasol also will look to draw fouls from Howard at both ends. Bynum, too, is both long and strong, and will not get beat to the rim as easily as the Cavs' big men did. And then Lamar Odom, himself a hybrid forward, will have a much easier time staying with Lewis than anyone Cleveland employed (other than James). How Gasol and Bynum do on Howard, and whether they need help in slowing him down, will go a long way toward determining which team will win this series.
• Late in games, Orlando relies heavily on high and flat ball screens for Turkoglu, set by Howard. Shooters are spaced, and Turk tries to get into the lane for his excellent pull-up shot or even a runner (most likely with his right hand). Howard races to the center of the rim (which forces help defenders to cover more space when diving down to help), so any delay by either his own man (who gets caught up helping on Turk) or the other three defenders (who are fanned out to protect against the 3-point shot) to get inside to contest Howard ends up in a dunk off a quick pass or lob.
• They'll set side pick-and-rolls with the same personnel, which can free up Turk to create a pass or mid-range jumper as the Lakers' big men tend to stay back to contain the drive and protect the rim.
• As much as Orlando excels in the half-court sets, it is a team that has grown increasingly fond of running after misses and even occasionally on makes. Rafer Alston is at his best in this style, and Orlando can best take advantage of Howard's speed to the rim if the Magic push the ball. Andrew Bynum, in particular, tends to run back, but when Howard races he can earn a dunk.
• Orlando is at its best when running early, establishing Howard on most possessions and then playing off of him. They get in trouble when they slow to a crawl, and then settle for their perimeter game and ignore Howard's efforts inside. If the Lakers can effectively defend Howard without too much help, or occupy the Magic's passers with constant ball pressure, Orlando's offense will struggle. And since the Magic -- save Howard or his backup, Marcin Gortat -- rarely dominate the offensive glass, missed shots often can be turned into transition points for L.A., helping the Lakers avoid facing the league's best defense.
Lakers' offense vs. Magic's defense
• The Lakers are scoring 108.6 points per 100 possessions in the playoffs, and Orlando has allowed 100.5 points per 100 possessions.
• L.A.'s offense is humming heading into the Finals after hanging 119 points and 57 percent shooting on the Nuggets in the series-clinching Game 6 in the Western Conference finals and scoring more than 100 points in each game against Denver. Even more impressive is the fact that 53 of the Lakers' 80 field goals over the past two games have been assisted. They are sharing the ball and spreading the wealth. They scored 103 points in both games against the Magic in the regular season.
• It's been five months since the Lakers lost to Orlando for the second time in the regular season, and L.A. is a much different offensive team, with Trevor Ariza firmly establishing himself as a significant scoring threat. He adds a dimension that didn't exist in the previous meetings, and puts pressure on Turkoglu and the other Magic forwards who didn't have to defend this kind of athlete in the Cleveland series. Ariza will get his points slashing into the lane off cuts in the triangle (especially on the cut after the post feed), finishing at the rim in transition, and spotting up for 3s in the half court.
• The Magic can't just gang up on Kobe Bryant, who is expecting to see the tag team of Courtney Lee and Pietrus. Bryant will look to post Lee in the weak-side pinch post and in the low post on the ball side, and will attack Pietrus off the dribble from the top and in high ball screen situations. L.A. will look to put Howard in the ball-screen action as much as possible, forcing him to stay with Bryant much longer on the hedge. This will become more of a double team, as Bryant will string this out trying to turn the corner. Bryant is an excellent passer against this scheme and will find Gasol on the roll or shooters spotting up around him if he is trapped. And with Howard having at least five fouls in seven of his past eight games and fouling out of three games in the conference finals, expect Black Mamba to follow LeBron's lead and show no fear of Howard at the rim.
• If Bynum and Gasol play together, look for Bynum to post Howard on the left block and try to attack the middle with his big body and right-hand jump hook. Gasol will post Lewis and try to face up against Howard further out in the post extended or the high post. Gasol hasn't had great success at the rim against the shot-blocking Howard, so look for Gasol to post, screen and flash to the mid- and high-post areas for the short jump shot. This also allows him to go right at Howard with more speed on his drives. Odom will use his versatility to work inside and outside based on his matchup, and his aggressiveness adds another dimension and matchup issue for the Magic. With everyone flooding toward Bryant, offensive rebounds will be there for the Lakers' big men.
• Derek Fisher and the other Laker perimeter players will come off the double-screen action for the jump shot in the triangle, work off the weak-side pinch-post handoff action for jumpers, or spot up in the corners and around the attacking Bryant for 3s. The Lakers' bench made only 3-of-18 3-point attempts in the two regular-season losses to the Magic, which will have to improve to space the floor for Bryant and Gasol in the Finals.
Alston: One of the heroes for Orlando's win over Cleveland, Alston was forced to be a finisher and shooter by the Cavs. And he responded to the challenge in two of their four wins. The Lakers normally defend him well, since they don't offer Howard as much help inside. Alston loves to push the pace, and both teams like to run. So he's going to have to be in charge of his team and create the tempo that best suits them.
Fisher: Fisher's matchup with Alston will be a key for the Lakers, as both point guards provide supplemental offense that ultimately proves to make a difference. Fisher has averaged 7.1 points in the playoffs on only 36 percent shooting, and hit just 24 percent of this 3-point attempts. However, the Lakers are 5-0 in the playoffs when Fisher scores in double figures. He had 27 points and nine points in their two losses to Orlando in the regular season.
Lee: Lee did not shoot well against Cleveland, making just 4-of-15 3s in the series. But his defense was excellent and his playmaking was a positive. Lee will spend time guarding Kobe, and he's quick enough to at least hold his own. He excels in executing Stan Van Gundy's strategy on both ends, and can be an X factor if his shooting stroke returns.
Bryant: The superlatives have been used up in describing Bryant's play in this year's playoffs, as Bryant's scoring has risen from 27.4 points in the first and second rounds to 34.0 in the conference finals on 48 percent shooting. He has played the role of facilitator, which inspired confidence in his teammates in the crucial Game 5 win over Denver. He's also performed well as L.A.'s closer, taking over Game 6 in Mamba-like fashion with 35 points and 10 assists to put away the Nuggets. Bryant had 41 points on 14-for-31 shooting in the Lakers' 106-103 loss at Orlando on Dec. 20, and 28 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists in a 109-103 home loss to the Magic on Jan. 16, while shooting only 10-for-26 from the field. He will need those kinds of numbers with better efficiency in this series, as he faces the NBA's best shot-blocker and the best defense he has seen in the playoffs.
Turkoglu: This is the guy LeBron will see in his nightmares this summer, as Turk had his hands on the ball more than any other Magic player in that series. He dished out 6.7 assists per game and still proved to be able to score 2s or 3s when the team needed him most. He's an underrated defender as well, as he has a feel for the game and has good size and length. L.A. held him in check in both meetings, but Van Gundy will ask more of him now than he did then.
Ariza: Ariza's athleticism, defensive versatility and now his scoring have been an important part of the Lakers' success in this year's playoffs. After averaging a career-high 8.9 points during the regular season, Ariza is averaging 11.4 points in the playoffs, and 12.3 points against Denver on 58 percent shooting. Ariza has also become the Lakers' most deadly 3-point threat, hitting 50 percent of his 3-point attempts (30-for-60) in the playoffs. He averaged only six points against the Magic this season in a limited role, but is playing more minutes and is now a much more significant part of the Lakers' offensive attack and a defensive key against the team that traded him to L.A.
Lewis: Lewis was a monster for Orlando against the Cavs. He made 15 of his 31 3-pointers in the series, and hit 10 of 19 in their four wins. When Lewis is cooking on the perimeter, Orlando's offense can explode because he's also good at shot-faking his defender and making plays at the rim. And he is often the best passer to Howard in the post. What he does on defense and the boards will be pivotal, as both Gasol and Odom present problems for him. His rebounding, in particular, is a concern.
Gasol: Gasol has been a consistent force inside for the Lakers throughout the playoffs, averaging 18.2 points and 11.3 rebounds on 57 percent shooting. He shot better than 50 percent in every game of the conference finals against Denver, and with Ariza providing more of an offensive threat, Gasol could be the biggest matchup issue for Orlando. He averaged 3.5 assists per game in the conference finals, and he is the Lakers' leading shot blocker in the playoffs, averaging 2.0 blocks per game. Against the Magic in the Lakers' two regular-season losses, Gasol averaged only 12 points and eight rebounds on 9-for-22 shooting. With his production so far in the playoffs, expect more of the Lakers' offense to run through him in the post.
Howard: He's growing into a legend of his own, thanks largely to his huge effort in games and his 70 percent free throw shooting against Cleveland. His 40-point, 14-board effort in Game 6 ranks up there with LeBron James' and Bryant's best playoff games this postseason. But like Boston, L.A. has players who matchup with him much better than the guys on Cleveland's roster. It's extremely important for Howard to show that he can score with ease on any of the Lakers' defenders, thus forcing them to either double (and open up Orlando's 3-point attack) or allow Howard to keep racking up buckets either in the paint or at the line. Orlando's offense diminishes greatly when he's not able to open up their shooters.
His presence on defense is just as important, though he will not be able to play a one-man zone against the Lakers. Icing Gasol and Bynum inside will hurt L.A'.s offense and will be a key to the series. Doing this allows the league's best defense to dictate where the shots are going to come from.
Bynum: As the Lakers have tried to work Bynum back into a rhythm in the playoffs, his offensive production has climbed from 5.0 points in the first round to 7.8 points per game in the conference finals against Denver. He has played only 17 minutes per game in the playoffs, but expect that to increase as the Lakers will need more defense, rebounding and shot blocking from him in this series. Bynum had three points and five fouls in just 12 minutes against Orlando on Dec. 20., and 14 points and just three rebounds in 33 minutes in the Lakers' Jan. 16 loss.
Pietrus: Pietrus keyed a huge bench advantage for Orlando against Cleveland with 13.8 ppg and 47.2 percent shooting from 3-point shooting. He's shooting with tons of confidence, but will also be another long body to use in chasing Kobe all game long. It's hard to envision Orlando winning without big contributions from Pietrus.
Anthony Johnson: Even though he scored little, Johnson has played beautifully, running the team and getting the ball where it needed to go. Picture-perfect veteran leadership off the bench.
Gortat: He's been stunningly good this postseason, starting with his excellent effort in place of Howard in their Game 6 closeout in Philly. He holds the fort down in the 10 or so minutes he plays, and can break out with important buckets, rebounds and blocks if the Lakers' big men relax at all when Howard is out.
J.J. Redick: Barely played against Cleveland, but may get more of a chance in this series as the Lakers play some guys with which he matches up better. He proved to be a gritty defender against Ray Allen, and might get a look or two against Kobe.
Tony Battie: A strong and physical post guy that should see more time in this series, thanks to L.A.'s ability to play big with Gasol and Bynum. He's solid on defense and the boards.
Jameer Nelson: As the emotional leader of the team, his return to the court would be a huge lift for the Magic. He was their best player in both meetings with L.A. this season, but it's hard to imagine he can return to that kind of production (55 points on 24 shots).
Odom: Odom's scoring and rebounding off the bench are vital to the Lakers, as he essentially plays starters minutes in the playoffs (31.4 minutes per game). He stepped up his play in Games 5 and 6 against Denver and was a huge difference-maker. After scoring only 30 total points in Games 1-4, Odom had 19 points, 14 rebounds and four blocks in Game 5, and 20 points and eight rebounds in Game 6. His playoff averages of 12.0 points and 9.5 rebounds on 51 percent shooting don't illustrate his inconsistency. His four points and eight rebounds, and 17 points and nine rebounds in the two games against the Magic in the regular season are more representative of his pattern.
Luke Walton: Walton has played 16 minutes per game in the playoffs, providing passing and defense, and has averaged 3.8 points on just 36 percent shooting. He stepped up big in the Game 6 closeout game with Denver, scoring 10 points on 5-of-8 shooting.
Shannon Brown: Brown provides aggressive ballhandling and scoring in 14 minutes per game. He has played in every game in the playoffs, averaging 5.8 points and hitting 48 percent of his 3-point attempts.
Jordan Farmar: Farmar has averaged 5.1 points and 2.1 assists in 13 minutes in the playoffs and has provided additional guard play and 3-point shooting. He has hit 11 of his 31 3-point attempts in the playoffs, making 3-of-13 against Denver.
Sasha Vujacic: Vujacic has shot only 28 percent in the playoffs, averaging 3.8 points in 12 playoff minutes per game. He made 6-of-15 3-point attempts in the conference finals.
Both teams have played impressive basketball, but Orlando has been more impressive to this point. Of their combined seven losses, three have come from buzzer-beaters. They blew out the Sixers without Howard on the road to close that series in Game 6, then beat Boston in Game 7, again on the road. Then they beat the league's best team, with the best home record, in Game 1 on the road.
L.A. has had some significant wins this spring, but none compare to those three Magic wins, except possibly Game 6 in Denver. The Magic are playing their best ball of the season, and have almost all of their players playing at their best. They are in sync and confident.
But just as they held the matchup advantage with Cleveland, so too does Los Angeles with them. Yes, Orlando won both games this season, but none have been played since mid-January and both teams look very different now. Los Angeles breezed through Utah, showed great toughness to dispatch Houston and then stepped up the intensity and execution to beat the Nuggets. And unlike the Magic, the Lakers have the pain of last season's flameout to help provide the proper mindset this time around. Both teams can, and will, win on the road. But in six or seven games, the Lakers should be able to hold off the Magic and claim another title.
Prediction: Lakers win 4-3
David Thorpe is an NBA analyst for Scouts Inc. and the executive director of the Pro Training Center in Clearwater, Fla., where he oversees the player development program for more than 40 NBA, European and D-League players. Those players include Kevin Martin, Rob Kurz, Luol Deng, Courtney Lee and Tyrus Thomas. To e-mail him, click here.
Mike Moreau is the director of basketball for the Pro Training Center and The Basketball Academy at the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla. He also serves as an NBA analyst for Hoopsworld.
Synergy Sports Technology systems were used in the preparation of this report.