The razor-thin margin between winning and losing in the NBA Finals has been on full display this season, as the Magic are an alley-oop layup and a free throw away from a 3-1 lead in the series. However, it isn't that simple. In spite of coach Stan Van Gundy's protestations, experience is the difference on crucial possessions that swing series.
It is experience that keeps a team from panicking when they are down five with under minute to play. It is experience (and intelligence) that helped Kobe Bryant anticipate the pass inside so he could be in position to wrap up Dwight Howard in front of the rim and prevent the game-ending dunk with 11.1 to play, forcing Howard to the line for the biggest free throws of his life. It is the experience of being there before that allowed Derek Fisher to calmly send the game into overtime with a 3-point shot, then put the game away with another.
And it is experience that doesn't have players questioning rotations in the season's 105th game. Game 4 proved that it is precisely because of Finals experience that it is the Lakers, not the Magic, who lead this series 3-1.
• No adjustment on the court counts as much as the mental adjustment Orlando needs to make to survive Game 5. They have no chance unless they first collectively decide that if they lose this series, it's going to happen on the road. That sense of urgency and confidence that they have displayed much of the playoffs has to reappear. As does their unity and belief in each other and their system.
• The Magic will watch the film of Game 4 and see that they were virtually unguardable in the first half on ball screens, with ballhandlers scoring off the dribble and screeners rolling to open areas for jump shots and to the basket for easy scores. They varied locations and screening angles and got just about whatever they wanted.
• When the Lakers ramped up their ball pressure and defensive effort in the third quarter, the Magic went back on their heels. The attacks off the ball screens became more passive, and with Hedo Turkoglu on the bench with foul trouble, the Magic offense ground to a halt. Even before Hedo's fourth foul, Orlando tried to feature Howard in the post more than it had. But with how L.A. is swarming him and causing problems, they are better off staying with their ball-screen actions as the main attack plan while sprinkling in post-ups. Remember, Howard can get touches out of his pick-and-roll dives to the rim if L.A. leaves him to help.
• Orlando ballhandlers must aggressively attack the hedge defender and turn the corner on ball screens in Game 4, with the sole purpose of getting into the lane and getting to the rim. This penetration creates everything for Orlando's offense, from wide-open 3s to dunks. When they went back to this in the fourth quarter, the Magic did everything right to win -- except make free throws.
• If Orlando goes to its power post-up game with Howard, he must read where the Lakers' help is coming from on the move. Howard cannot just plow into five defenders and get tied up as he did in Game 4. He must recognize the coverage and attack a single defender, or pass out of a trap or hard hedge. If the Magic shooters see Howard single-covered, they must become cutters and offensive rebounders with their defenders in their laps.
• The Magic need to do a better job converting transition plays into points, as they had numerous blown opportunities in Game 4 -- from a Rafer Alston turnover, to a J.J. Redick bad shot trying to draw a foul, to Mickael Pietrus falling down out of control and blowing a layup, to Marcin Gortat throwing an outlet pass into the scorer's table.
• Defensively, look for the Magic to be better at their basic strategy of defending Bryant. They should single-cover him on the perimeter, and double him late in the post. Courtney Lee and Pietrus must eliminate the shot-fake/reach-in fouls in Game 5 and stay more disciplined with a high hand contesting Bryant.
• Bryant burned Orlando a number of times with passes out of the post when the Magic brought their trapping defender too early in Game 4. In Game 5, they must wait and come late on the trap, after Bryant has started his move.
• The Lakers continue to have problems defending the Magic ball-screen action, as they tried to force Turkoglu, Alston and Jameer Nelson away from the screens, and also went under the screens to prevent the drive. They weren't well-coordinated when they mixed this up. The miscommunication between Lakers defenders created some easy baskets and lots of angry and frustrated looks on their coaches' faces. Knowing the strategy and executing it are two different things. This has as much to do with intensity and effort as it does with scheme and execution. Great effort can make up for a lot of technical mistakes. The Lakers came out aggressively attacking Magic ballhandlers in the third quarter of Game 4, and that aggression ignited their comeback.
• But it wasn't just Fisher, Bryant and Trevor Ariza who ramped up their effort. Andrew Bynum played his best defensive game of the series, hedging hard and up the floor on ball screens, as well as sprinting to recover with his hands up to prevent a return pass to Howard. Now that Bynum has seen the same attack for four straight games, he may be prepared to be more consistent in these situations in Game 5.
• The Lakers also jammed the lane with better help, crowding Howard and discouraging the pass into the lane. They also got into the lane to contest drives, as wide-open layups in the first half became tougher, contested finishes in the second. The difference between an easy layup and a missed shot is a split-second reaction and half a step. Without that from Bryant on the Magic's last possession in the fourth quarter of Game 4, Howard dunks and the series is tied.
• It will take a continued, coordinated effort in Game 5 to take the Magic's primary offensive action away. Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Ariza, Bryant and Luke Walton were able to switch some of this action in the second half of Game 4, and by doing so, may have finally found the best way to defend the Magic's deadly ball-screen attack.
• Outside of the ball-screen action, the Lakers' perimeter defenders must reduce the dribble penetration of the Magic guards. In the Lakers' basic strategy of trying to force the ball to the sideline, Ariza and Fisher often staggered their stance too much in Game 4, creating a virtual free path to the basket. In Game 5, they must play on the inside shoulder, but with a flatter stance to impede a straight dribble into the lane.
• The Lakers' offense in Game 4 was a good mix of post-ups, drives and perimeter shots. The shots they missed in the first half started falling in the second, and the Lakers still like their matchup of Gasol against any Magic defender. Look for more touches for him in Game 5.
• Ariza's breakout third quarter in Game 4 was not only a good sign for the Lakers' offense, but it also means that Turkoglu will have to be more of a defender in Game 5.
• Rashard Lewis had just six points in Game 4. The only other time he's been held to single digits in the postseason was in Game 1 (eight points), and he poured in 34 in Game 2 in L.A.
• It goes without saying that the Magic's free throw shooting, especially Howard's, will be a key in a close game. But Turkoglu missed big free throws down the stretch, as well. If the Magic are confident and locked in all game, this should improve.
• Bynum's ability to stay on the floor for longer periods of time will be a key in Game 5. If he can defend Howard one-on-one without fouling, it takes the foul risk away from Gasol and Odom.
All of the what-ifs have now been played over and over in the heads of Magic players and coaches. They must forget all of the "we should be up 3-1" talk and lock in on this game. They don't have to win Games 6 and 7 right now -- they just have to win Game 5. Their game plan is sound; they are who they are. They just need better focus and efficiency on both ends and they need to finish plays.
The Lakers are ripe for getting blown out, as the sense of urgency may have dissipated with two games at home awaiting to close out the series. This is a dangerous mindset to fall into, but thanks to Captain Kobe, expect the experienced Lakers to come out with the idea of finishing off the wounded Magic. Neither team will hold anything back, and expect the physical play, hard fouls and emotion of Game 4 to escalate in Game 5, with the Magic staying alive and earning one more trip to L.A.
Prediction: Magic win Game 5
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.