It’s June and it’s that time of the year when basketball afficionados are afflicted with the fever of the National Basketball Association (NBA) championship series. After it became clear that a Lakers-Celtics rematch will not materialize, many hoped for a Kobe-LeBron showdown. But that dream matchup between two of the world’s greatest basketball players today would have to wait as the Lakers will be facing Dwight Howard’s Orlando Magic in the 2008-2009 Finals.
Like most Filipino basketball fans, I’m a self-proclaimed basketball expert and would not run out of points on how a game or a series would unfold. Or explain what went wrong and right. But I don’t think I can make an objective forecast since I have always been a huge Lakers fan (except for that period in the 1990s when Magic Johnson had retired and almost everyone was a fan of Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls).
So I will not make an “expert’s prediction” of who will take home the Larry O’Brien trophy this year. Of course, it’s the Lakers. I haven’t read any Finals forecast yet but I assume that experts agree its the Lakers.
But as a fan, I will just explain why the Los Angeles Lakers will finish the job this year, after falling short in the 2007-2008 season against the Boston Celtics.
Obviously, the Lakers, which closed the regular season with the second best win-loss record (65-17) just a game behind the Cleveland Cavaliers (66-16), are the overwhelming favorites. And without taking away due credit to the great performance this season of the Magic or the Cavaliers, I don’t think anyone in the Eastern Conference poses a real threat to the Lakers other than the Celtics.
Of course, the Magic eliminated the Celtics in seven games – but mainly because Kevin Garnett did not play. With KG around, the conlusion of that series would have been foregone.
While this year’s defensive player of the year Howard mans its center slot, the Magic as a team does not play intense defense. They will beat you by outshooting you with their crew of efficient long-range bombers Hedo Torkuglu, Rashard Lewis, Rafer Alston and Mickael Pietrus. And they have a tendency to start slow and then try to push on the gas pedal later mainly through three-point shooting. That’s what they did to Cleveland, Boston and the Philadelphia 76ers.
But to have a real chance of defeating the Lakers, you do not try to outshoot them because you can’t. Its first five and bench are a bunch of scorers, from any angle and in a wide range. What you must do is try to choke its triangle offense by assigning a set of good defensive players on Kobe Bryant. The Houston Rockets – with Ron Artest and Shane Battier alternately taking on Kobe – did that and even without T-Mac and later Yao Ming had a legitimate shot at eliminating the Lakers. Unfortunately for the Magic, like the Denver Nuggets, they do not have the system and the players to do that, not even Pietrus.
If LeBron had the same support crew like Kobe enjoys in Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Trevor Ariza, Derek Fisher and others, the Cavaliers would have been in the Finals. King James averaged an amazing 38.5 points per game against the Magic but the rest of the team simply did not deliver. Kobe can score 30, 40 points a night if he wants to but Gasol and Odom – both elite NBA players – can churn 20 points (and 10 plus rebounds) a game if they need to. This will be a major headache for coach Stan Van Gundy.
Lastly, the experience factor. As a franchise, this will be the 30th trip for the Lakers to the NBA Finals. It will be the second straight season that they will play in a championship series – with the same 8 or 9 players in its roster. Kobe and coach Phil Jackson (with Shaquille O’Neal) have won three straight championships for the Lakers from 2000 to 2002. On the contrary, this is only the second trip for the relatively young Orlando franchise (it was established only in 1989) to the Finals – the first in the 1994-1995 season when Shaq was still with them. They lost to Hakeem Olajuwon and the Rockets.
In summary, the Lakers are simply too talented, too deep, too disciplined, and too seasoned for the Magic. A simple comparison of their team stats during the playoffs affirms this – the Lakers score more points (103 points per game vs Orlando’s 98) and do it more efficiently (47% field goal percentage vs 46%), rebound more (42 per game vs 38), move the ball better (20 assists per game vs 19) and defend better (8 steals, 7 blocks per game vs 7 steals, 4 blocks). And finally, they have the home court advantage.
If the Magic were lucky, they would be eliminated in six games.
But then again, I’m just a Lakers fan.