Scouting Update: Magic-Lakers, Game 4
Los Angeles started Game 3 focused on pounding Orlando in the paint, where the Lakers got five of their first six shots. Then Kobe Bryant went to work from everywhere and helped them dominate most of the first half. But the Lakers have had difficulty defending Orlando since the third quarter of Game 2, and that fact is the biggest story of the series. At no point in Game 3 did it look like Los Angeles knew how to best defend the Magic attack, so that weakness gives the Lakers players and their coaching staff a clear focus heading into Game 4. After the Magic's Game 3 win, it's clear that Game 1 was the aberration, and the following games were the rule. This series is going to be tight.
• The Lakers have to face the facts. They allowed Orlando to score 110 points in the first six quarters of the series; only in the first quarter of Game 1 did Orlando top 20 points. Since then the Lakers have given up 161 points (not counting OT in Game 2), and the Magic have scored more than 22 points in all six quarters. They've scored 27 twice, 30 once and 32 once. So what happened, besides some better shooting percentages? As explained in the Game 2 report, Orlando's perimeter players have made a much better effort at attacking ball screens with the intent to turn the corner and get into the paint. Just taking one extra step toward the rim can help create an easier midrange shot or a lane to get to the basket. That extra step oftentimes can also draw the help, and thus open up the 3-point shooting.
• Rafer Alston, Jameer Nelson, Hedo Turkoglu and Mickael Pietrus all are penetrating the defense and putting the Lakers in tough positions to defend. Los Angeles has to figure this out, and not just hope for Orlando to suffer a poor shooting night. That the Magic set Finals records for field goal percentage in the first half and for the game is a symbol of what they are capable of when their offense is flowing.
• The Lakers can try to defend the screens differently than how they are doing it now, which is typically a semi-hard hedge and then a rotation toward the screen on the backside. Every strategy they employ can be countered effectively by Van Gundy, who is a master pragmatist and has seen every type of defense. But just as he tried every rotation to find a rhythm in Game 2, so must Phil Jackson try every defense possible and see what works in Game 4. This is Priority 1 for L.A.
• The simplest way for the Lakers to prevent penetration is to force Magic ball handlers to "turn down" the screen by having the defender jump with his back to the screen and force the ball handler to drive in the other direction. This sets up tough help-and-recover situations on the ball side, but it eliminates all of the initial confusion and multiple defensive rotations that have the Lakers flying out to wide-open shooters or getting pinned under the rim by Howard.• Magic shooters have now adjusted to the Lakers' plan to chase them off the 3-point line, so L.A. must close out with more control, keeping a hand extended high to contest but staying solid to prevent the blow-by. The Lakers can't allow Orlando any more free passes to the rim in Game 4. • When Lamar Odom plays the 4 and sets a screen for Andrew Bynum or Pau Gasol, Orlando switches the screen, putting Dwight Howard on Odom. Until late in the game, Odom did not attack Howard off the dribble, but making Howard defend in open spaces out on the floor can result in fouls for the Magic center and create easy shots when Orlando helps on the drive. • In general, Odom needs to be more assertive, no matter who is defending him. His ability to make plays in the paint doesn't just give L.A. better chances for higher percentage shots, but it also draws attention from Howard, leaving Bynum or Gasol available to clean up misses.
• Howard had some success with his running hook, which he can make with either hand. And he is far better scoring in the post than people realize. Cutting off the hook risks being hit with his quick-spin counter. L.A. has hurt Howard when he's gone to the spin, only to find a second player raking down on the ball in Howard's new path to the rim. The Lakers can make this action a rule, and then send help from the top down to the corner, forcing Howard to find the shooter back at the top. If he gets rotated to, then he can go to the opposite side. • The Lakers shot 51 percent from the floor and scored 104 points, which should be good enough to win any game in this series. They lost the game at the foul line, with Bryant going 5-for-10 and the rest of the team going 11-for-16. And because Bryant's shooting percentage faltered as Game 3 went on, look for him to post both Pietrus and a href="http://sports.espn.go.com/nba/players/profile?playerId=3445">Courtney Lee on the weak side of the triangle in Game 4. He can beat both with his quick-attack game, and thus force Orlando's hand on the double-team. • With Gasol going 9-for-11 from the floor in Game 3, the Lakers must continue their plan of pounding the ball inside on Lewis, Howard or any Magic defender who tries to defend Gasol one-on-one. If Bryant is the main defensive focus late in the game, Gasol may become the closer down the stretch. If the Lakers play the high screen-and-roll game with Gasol and Bryant as they did in Game 3, Odom is isolated on Lewis in the post on ball reversal. Orlando
• The Magic are seeing many of their post feeds to Howard get deflected and some of them stolen. They need to feed him from spots just outside the 3-point line rather than from farther out. And because of the length of Gasol and Bynum, Orlando might try some fast and low bounce passes, which will be out of reach to those long-limbed defenders but still catchable for Howard.
• Lewis had success from the mid-post area, which is not too deep but still a step from the paint. Look for more touches for him in that area.• Pietrus has to stop trying to block Kobe's shot. Ditto for Lee. It's just another way for Kobe to earn more trips to the line. • We can expect L.A. to be more aggressive when hedging Turk coming off ball screens. Turk has a tendency to get caught up in that action, rather than continuing his search for Howard, who will dive right to the rim. Hedo can hit him with a quick pass sometimes, but only if Hedo's looking for him right away. • Howard can go up quicker on paint catches before he gets wrapped up. He's taking an extra second to gather himself first so he can get a monster dunk, when the better play is to just explode up quickly to get a quick dunk and a better and-1 chance. • Lee crowded Kobe late in the second quarter and in the second half, and had great success. But Kobe will expect this and work hard to draw fouls right away. Lee might play off him a little in anticipation of the quick whistle, and then start crowding again as the game evolves. • The Magic ran help to Kobe with the nearest defender, giving Kobe the easy pass to a shooter. In that scenario, the next-nearest defender has to recognize the situation and close out that shooter quickly.
• The Magic have gone from one extreme to another with their shooting in this series, and expect it to fall somewhere in the middle in Game 4. With L.A. expected to give a better defensive effort, shot selection and decision-making will be key. • Tony Battie played in place of Marcin Gortat because he can make perimeter shots that Gortat can't. The Lakers were not guarding Gortat, instead using the extra defender to blunt scoring actions from other players. Battie made some key shots in Game 3. Can he do it again?
• The Magic's point totals have risen from 75 to 96 to 108. L.A. must keep the Magic point total under 100 in Game 4, which means playing at a slower pace.
PredictionThe Magic now have their Finals legs, and with momentum on their side and confidence restored, they will attempt to pick up where they left off in Game 3. L.A. must solve the ball-screen defensive problem, and execute much better down the stretch. Expect better defense from both teams and a more physical, grind-it-out pace. Although that favors the Lakers, look for the Magic to make enough big shots to even the series. Prediction: Magic Win Game 4
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.