Thursday, June 04, 2009

NBA Finals Preview

obrienAh, yes. The time has come. The wonderful first few weeks of June where every Thursday, Sunday, Tuesday, until we have a team win 4 times, we have NBA Finals basketball.

It certainly wasn't the match-up everyone expected. The Lakers are the people's choice, but the surprise guest is the Orlando Magic. When they lost their point guard (against the Mavericks, you may recall) Jameer Nelson, many thought that they went from a dark-horse to a team with no real chance. But, they scrambled, and have received huge efforts from various points, and between "Skip to my Lou" and the under-valued Hedo Turkoglu they have figured this thing out a bit.

To knock out the Cleveland Cavaliers in 6 games is impressive enough. Now, can they continue this run and grab their first O'Brien trophy with a shocking win over the L.A. Lakers?

I would certainly not pick them, but after that display, they should be treated with a great amount of respect. This is a dangerous team with a very impressive young stud in Dwight Howard, who has gone from a prospect who dominates the dunk competition to a guy who now deserves a spot in the "Top 5 players in the NBA" discussion.

Freeze! Before we go on, who is now in my Top 5 players in the NBA? Lebron, Kobe, Wade, Howard, and I believe I will fill out the Top 5 with Chris Paul. Which, might have actually been the starting line-up for the Redeem Team last year, right? Anyway, with only Kobe at 30 years old or older, the future of the NBA seems in good hands...

Ok, back to the Finals - the Lakers have home court and the Lakers have the best player (although not by a ton). Dwight Howard did something in the last series that I wasn't sure he could do which was to appear to be an offensive threat late in the game because of his poor FT shooting. The theory is that you just foul him like "Hack-a-Shaq" and then they stop going to him for another excruciating high-leverage moment where he tosses up two bricks. But, Howard has hit some key Free Throws in the conference finals, actually knocking down 70%, after 54% in the series before, and 59% in the regular season. If he hits 70% in this series, that will present Phil Jackson with an remarkable decision to make; whether he can continue to single-cover or give up open 3-pointers.

One thing we cannot forget is that in the last series, Orlando beat Cleveland largely due to the fact that Lebron had no significant help for large chunks of the series, while Howard could often just sit back and watch Hedo and Rashard Lewis. He obviously has more help than Lebron, and that became evident over the course of two weeks.

But in this series, the differences seem less obvious. Kobe v Howard. Gasol v Turkoglu. Odom v Lewis. Kobe, Gasol, Odom vs. Howard, Turkoglu, Lewis. Then, Fisher, Ariza, Bynum vs. Alston, Pietrus, Lee. Also, of course, it is Phil Jackson vs. Stan Van Gundy.

From all of these standpoints - Best player, Big 3, supporting cast, and coach - I think I like the Lakers better. Then, you factor in home court advantage, comfort on the main stage, and closer, I would have to take the Lakers in 6.

But, enought about me....Let's me offer you what I have been reading, so you don't have to cruise all over the internet to find some good NBA Finals reading material:

Basketball Prospectus Breaks It Down ...
Having demonstrated the kind of force he can be on offense, Howard now faces the challenge of showing he can sustain that level of finishing ability. The Lakers are as help-conscious as any team in the league, so opportunities for Howard to play one-on-one should be relatively rare. That means Howard must continue to make the right decisions and get the ball to the Magic's shooters without turning it over. At his best, Bynum has the athletic ability to stay with Howard, but even when healthy he had five fouls in 12 minutes in the Lakers' Dec. 20 loss at Orlando, a game in which Howard shot 15 free throws. At this point, Bynum is clearly nowhere near 100 percent, continuing to be up and down in his level of play.

Howard can physically overwhelm Gasol with his strength when the Lakers go small, an advantage mitigated by help defense. The bigger concern for the Lakers with a Gasol/Howard match-up will be having their All-Star big man get into foul trouble and be unable to contribute at the other end.

Besides Howard, the most important Magic player in the regular-season series was Nelson, who torched the pick-and-roll defense that is the Lakers' Achilles heel to the tune of 27.5 points and 78.4 percent True Shooting (!) in two games. On Sunday, the Orlando Sentinel reported that Nelson could potentially play in the NBA Finals as his shoulder rehabilitation has progressed well--but only if Nelson passes what GM Otis Smith described as "a litany of tests." Even if Nelson is able to play, it's tough to see him being a big contributor four months after he last saw the court.

Orlando has managed to replace Nelson by committee. Alston is the focal point, but Anthony Johnson deserves credit for picking up his level of play (considered a weakness as the backup to Nelson before his injury, Johnson has been rock-solid in the playoffs) and Hedo Turkoglu has helped by picking up additional ballhandling duties and even playing the point for lengthy stretches in the playoffs. This will be the trio's biggest test yet, because the Lakers' defense practically demands teams attack them at the point. Neither Alston nor Johnson is a strong pick-and-roll option at this point of their careers, so Turkoglu at the point could emerge as the best option for Van Gundy, allowing him to keep both Lee and Pietrus on the floor. Alston has been a reliable floor general in the postseason, but he will have to demonstrate again his ability to knock down open threes. Surely the Lakers, like Cleveland before them, will find Alston the least dangerous shooting option for the Magic.

John Hollinger ...
• Dwight Howard will regress to the mean from the line. Howard shot 59.4 percent from the stripe during the regular season. He's a 60.1 percent shooter for his career and made 61.1 percent of his attempts during the first two rounds of the playoffs. Any direction you come at it, he's basically a 60 percent free-throw shooter.

But in the upset of Cleveland, he shot 70.1 percent, making 47 of 67 from the stripe. That was huge in particular during Game 4, which the Magic won in overtime in part because Howard made 7 of 9 free-throw shots. But such a phenomenon is unlikely to continue in the Finals.

We have a tendency to look at short hot streaks from the line and think a player has improved, when often it's just because of random chance. Take Shaquille O'Neal, for instance. About 20 different times during his career, he has had stretches when he has shot free throws somewhat competently, and people have written stories along the lines of "Shaq's making his free throws! This changes everything!"

In retrospect, it's easy to see those were just random variations. The same applies to Howard. I don't think he suddenly improved his free-throw shooting before the conference finals. And if so, we can expect him to regress to his usual charity-stripe performance during the Finals.

• Orlando can't count on free-throw "defense." Holding Cleveland down in other ways was a great sign of the Magic's defensive ability. Holding Cleveland to 70.6 percent from the line, however, was pure luck. The Cavs missed 53 free throws in six games. Had they maintained their usual 75.7 percent accuracy, they would have scored nine more points in the series and probably could have swung the outcome of Game 1 or Game 4 in their favor. The Lakers shot 77 percent from the line during the regular season, and presumably, the Magic can't count on L.A. to suddenly shoot 5 percentage points worse than its norm during the Finals.

Quick note from Magic public relations ace Joel Glass: Orlando will become the first team in NBA history to win three straight series against 60-win teams if it can vanquish the Lakers in the Finals.

In fact, the Magic are already on pretty solid historical footing in that regard. They're one of only seven teams to beat two 60-win teams in a postseason, the most recent being the 2006 Miami Heat. They're also the second to beat two 60-win teams before the Finals. The other team to do so was the 1995 Houston Rockets, the team that swept Orlando in its only other trip to the Finals.

Pietrus will stop wearing his Kobe shoes ...
You probably wouldn't want to be in Magic SG Mickael Pietrus' shoes. He'll have to help defend Lakers star Kobe Bryant.

Fact is, Pietrus doesn't want to be in Kobe's shoes.

Pietrus said he has worn a pair of basketball shoes that Bryant endorses during games but will not do so for his NBA Finals match-up against the Lakers.

"I have some at my house, but I'm going to play with Michael Jordan shoes," Pietrus said.

Pietrus, who helped defend Cleveland star LeBron James in the East finals, cautions anyone who thinks he can stop Kobe cold.

"The only thing I can do is try to minimize his touches in the fourth quarter," Pietrus said. "He's a tremendous player and those guys you can not stop them. So maybe I can say, 'Hey, stop, Kobe! Yo! Stop!' Maybe that's the only way I can stop him. 'Stop for a minute!'"

Pietrus, who has starred coming off the bench this postseason, said he admires Bryant's killer instinct and tried to emulate that character trait when he first came into the league

Mike Bianchi on Shaq and Tiger ...
The Magic have been dissed by Shaquille O'Neal yet again.

Remember my column last week when I wrote what a travesty it was that Shaq attended the Magic-Cavs at Amway Arena with courtside seats he was able to acquire through the Magic?

Well how does the Big Ingrate repay the Magic for setting him up with such prime seats last week?

He comes out yesterday on Twitter and tweets: "thats right i am saying it today and today only, i want kobe bryant to get number 4, spread da word."

Yes, it's a free country and an individual has a right to root for whatever team he wants in the NBA Finals. But if your Shaq and you've just hit up the Magic for courtside seats, don't you at least have the common decency not to rub the organization's nose in it? Of course, what should we expect of a Magic hater who has referred to Magic center Dwight Howard as an "impostor" and Magic coach Stan Van Gundy as a "bum" and a "master of panic."

At least Tiger Woods, another famous athlete who lives in Orlando and has ties to L.A., was diplomatic enough to say he's conflicted about who he's rooting for.

"I'm really torn about the NBA finals," Woods wrote on his website. "I grew up a die-hard Los Angeles Lakers fan, but have season tickets to Orlando Magic games. Hopefully, it will be a great series."

There you have the difference between Tiger and Shaq.

One is class.

The other is just crass.

Phil and Kobe have legacy items on the line ...
Fate and circumstance have brought them together, with basketball as both their bond and salve, helping to repair a relationship that once seemed entirely broken, but could now take them to a place they both must go, and could not have gone alone.

It was only four years ago Phil Jackson had deemed his young star Kobe Bryant "uncoachable," a parting shot at the end of what seemed to be a distinguished career, but which ultimately left both men with a challenge they could not walk away from.

As these NBA Finals begin tonight, the Lakers having returned to the same stage they nervously blinked on a year ago, Jackson and Bryant each have something else at stake.

For Jackson, who had never lost in his first nine trips to the Finals, but has since lost twice, it is both another chance to pass Red Auerbach in the NBA's annals, and an opportunity to affirm he can do what he'd previously said was impossible: To coach Bryant, as he had Michael Jordan, to the pinnacle of the sport and his own immense abilities.

For Bryant, who won three titles alongside Shaquille O'Neal in his 20s but has never raised the trophy alone, it is a chance to rebut two of the only enduring footnotes at what has otherwise been a brilliant career: That he cannot win without O'Neal, and that he does not trust his teammates enough to make them all champions.

The issues loom so large, both men prefer not to acknowledge them.

Whatever place they hold in their hearts, or their spirit, is left sheltered and secret.

"Only they know that," Lakers assistant coach Brian Shaw said. "I don't think you'll ever hear either one of them say that, but I think all the people around them want Kobe to win one without Shaq and want Phil to break Red Auerbach's record.

"You don't get to this position and say, `Nah, I don't really care about it."'

Kobe battles the clock ...
When Kobe Bryant worked out for the Lakers as a high school graduate in 1996, he stunned them with his leaping ability and raw basketball talent that few 17-year-olds had ever possessed. Lakers luminary Jerry West, the team's executive vice president at the time, said it was the greatest workout he had ever witnessed.

Thirteen years and 1,118 NBA games later, Bryant is still one of the best basketball players in the world, but there's a lingering question planted in the backdrop as the Lakers begin the NBA Finals tonight against the Orlando Magic: How much longer can their 11-time All-Star produce eye-catching statistics before age and gravity tap him on the shoulder?

The Lakers and their failure to win a championship since 2002 is only one reason their fan base might be feeling a bit edgy. There's also a sense of urgency because the window for Bryant's career is only a handful of years from sliding shut.

Think of Bryant, who will be 31 in August, as a Ferrari with a well-tested odometer. Consider that he has already played 340 more NBA games than Michael Jordan when the Chicago Bulls' star was the same age, a 44% increase that can be traced to several long Lakers playoff runs early in Bryant's career and his entrance into the NBA immediately after high school. (Jordan waited until after his junior year at the University of North Carolina.)

Bryant continues to post numbers that any fresh-faced 23-year-old would giddily embrace, but, as TV analyst Mark Jackson observed on a recent play where Bryant scored on a routine layup instead of dunking the ball with authority: "Father Time is undefeated."

Bryant joked earlier in the season that he hit old-man status by turning 30, and, indeed, most basketball players are fortunate to still be in the league by their early 30s.

Sticking with his long-standing aura of invincibility, Bryant declined to open up on how his age might drive him in helping the Lakers win their 15th NBA championship.

"I'm not worried about it," he said flatly. "The urgency is there just because it's there."

NY Times story on the building of the Magic ...
Both franchises had to overcome extended Shaq hangovers to get here. It just took the Magic a little longer.

O’Neal’s defection left Penny Hardaway as the face of the Magic. The burden proved too heavy. Hardaway led a player revolt against Coach Brian Hill, but he couldn’t lead the Magic to a playoff series victory. He forced a sign-and-trade to Phoenix in 1999.

Orlando started over, gathering cheap role players and expiring contracts to make a free-agent splash in the summer of 2000. Tim Duncan said no, but Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady said yes, and Orlando had a new set of All-Stars to carry its championship dreams.

But Hill was almost always injured and McGrady was poor as a solo act, and the Magic still couldn’t get out of the first round of the playoffs. In 2004, Orlando swapped McGrady for another slightly defective star, Houston’s Steve Francis.

The Francis era lasted less than two years and featured two 36-win seasons and three coaching changes. This would qualify as the low point, but there was a large trampoline at the bottom of the chasm: Orlando won the 2004 lottery and drafted Dwight Howard, a 6-foot-11-inch, 240-pound high school star.

Now Howard is the one destroying basket stanchions, opposing centers and the hopes and dreams of would-be contenders.

Enjoy the Finals - it should be good times tonight on ABC.

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