A Two-Week Disney Waltz: Thoughts on the 2009 NBA Finals Between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Orlando Magic
The albatross has flown. Although the refs have periodically acted as cop and crook, the National Basketball Association is not rigged after all. No siree, not after the GDP of Cleveland—otherwise known as 24-years-young, Ohio-born superstar LeBron James—finished the final quarter of his season like so many once-monolithic American companies: reporting a staggering loss.
Excuse the French, but let’s say adieu to the fait accompli of a megawatt Cavs-Lakers Final: Nike’s Most Valuable Puppet campaign that supposes LeBron and L.A. Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant as odd-couple roommates (hey remember Li’l Penny?); VitaminWater’s inescapable, either-or debate; and, lest we forget, ESPN and other outlets’ continuous “Who’s Your Player” parley. Yeah, LeBron is the reigning MVP and the most dominant basketball force in the whole yawning Milky Way, but he won’t be the last man standing from Olympus—in fact, not since Tim Duncan’s 2nd MVP season (2002-2003) has the league’s best player taken home the more blessed Larry O’Brien trophy. No, the bragging right will be relished by his media arch-rival or his newfangled rival, Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard. Both make-you-believe talents, of course, were assisted beautifully by teammates who came through at the most opportune times (Trevor Ariza and Mikael Pietrus rush to mind). So, the King is dead, carried off by a team that amounted to an Army of One. Long live the King’s otherworldly stats (38.5 ppg, 8.0 apg, 8.3 rpg in his exit; 35.3 ppg, 7.3 apg, 9.1 rpg in total), but also remember his retinue’s fitful effort when stories of “LBJ in NYC 2010” resurface this offseason. Sound that cursed refrain for Cleveland franchises: better luck next year.
On a lighter note, let’s imagine this fairy-tale photo op: Howard—the Superman anchor of the surprising Eastern Conference champs—holding up a newspaper clip with “LeBron defeats Magic,” à la Harry Truman in 1948. When predicting the result of the Cavs-Magic series, few outside of Florida fathomed non-Disneyworld frenzies in Orlando come June, even if the Magic entered the playoffs with the conference’s third-best and the league’s fourth-best record at 59-23. Throughout the Cleveland series, the Magic—starters Howard, Rafer Alston, Courtney Lee, Hedo Turkoglu, and Rashard Lewis and supersub Pietrus—battled both the Cavs and a hype machine that ka-chinged with every LBJ highlight. Of course, the team astutely used the widespread disrespect as an all-for-one impetus. In ever-crucial game 1, for example, the Cavs led by 15 at the half thanks to Mo Williams’ serendipitous, opposite-side heave at the buzzer. At intermission, Magic coach Stan Van Gundy shrewdly used Nike’s LeBron slogan (“We are all witnesses”) to motivate his shell-shocked players. They eventually eked out a one-point win on a clutch jumper by Lewis, setting the hard-fought, back-and-forth tone of doom for the Cavs. With that, the Magic proved that they wouldn’t go down with a prolonged fight.
Howard and his sharpshooting squad will again be tagged as underdogs (though with more favorable odds, bettors out there), in spite of a 2-0 regular season record against their L.A. foes and only one more loss during these playoffs—the Magic are 12-7, the Lakers 12-6. Do these upstarts have another “upset” in them? They certainly have the talent and chemistry. Their potent, spread-out offense is predicated on the 3-pointer—nearly a third of their field-goal attempts—with four shooters surrounding Howard at all times (except when backup Tony Battie subs for Lewis). The Lakers can be prone to lapses in their 3-point rotations as well as unnecessary double teams, as displayed in their blow-out loses in Houston. But if the Lakers can limit and/or contest the 3, as they largely did during the Denver series (the Nuggets shot 31% from beyond the arch; the Magic, meanwhile, shot 41% against the Cavs), this series could be a short one for the long-ball lovers.
On the defensive end, Howard holds down the paint as the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, swatting his opponents’ floating shots and slowing down their forays into the post. His out-and-out domination, however, depends on the play of the Lakers’ young 58-million-dollar center Andrew Bynum, who has been consistent only in his inconsistency but has to be able to stay with Howard one-on-one in order to minimize Orlando’s shooters from zeroing in on open shots. Fortunately, Bynum has a viable blueprint form this very postseason with Kendrick Perkins’ physical defensive approach when Orlando played Boston. More importantly, he has to make Howard respect him on offense, and thus risk fouling him—LeBron drew a large number of Howard’s fouls in his foul-prone efforts, not counterparts Anderson Varejao or Ben Wallace. Without Howard on the floor, the Magic will stand little chance. Of course, Bynum could easily get into foul trouble too, which spells possible playing time for end-of-bench big D.J. Mbenga. In short, basketball fans should pray for refs aren’t striped proponents of the touch-foul.
While the Bynum-Howard match-up is the most intriguing, Lewis on Pau Gasol should be the most pivotal. With apologies to the fragile 7’6” piece of china in Houston, Gasol is perhaps the league’s most skilled post player: he’s ambidextrous around the basket, passes with Sabonis-like precision, and has excellent range on his jump shot despite what is considered an “exotic” release. If the Lakers pound the ball inside to Gasol, the Spaniard should have a field day against Lewis. Conversely, Lewis will free up post space for Howard by pulling Gasol away from the paint with his patented 3—this postseason, he’s hoisted about 5 a game at a 39% clip. If Gasol shifts over to cover Howard due to Bynum’s foul trouble, however, Lamar Odom is actually a consummate replacement with his versatility and length.
The 2-3-2 format of the Finals could also work in Orlando’s favor. If the Magic can take a game at the Staples Center, as they did at the Q (where the Cavs had lost just twice all season), then they’ll have the chance to close out the series at Amway Arena, where they’re 7-2 this postseason. After all, the pressure rests squarely on Kobe and coach Phil Jackson to win the title after losing to the Celtics last year. Heading to Orlando tied or in deficit would present three pressure-loaded games for the Lakers. Then again, the Lakers registered an 8-2 home mark to arrive at this opportunity and the men in purple-and-gold not only had the best road success during the regular season, but an indelible statement game in which they decimated the Nuggets in Denver to advance.
The elephant in the room is experience. None of Orlando’s primary players—Howard, Turkoglu, Lewis—have any Finals background to lean on. While Ariza, Bynum, and key sub Shannon Brown weren’t around for last year’s bout with the heavyweight Celtics, the rest of the Lakers arrive with that memory fresh in their redemptive minds. For one, pesky reserve Sasha Vujacic has refused to wear green since. For another, the Black Mamba—more ferocious and focused than ever—won’t let this prime-time opportunity slip. Kobe not only has a shot to one-up LeBron and halt the multimedia coronation, but can inarguably secure his spot as one of top players of all-time. Even anti-Kobe columnist Bill Simmons proposed that another title puts him in the top 8 and the top 3 guards to ever play the game. For an athlete who often acts like the ultimate automaton on court, this is his moment to do the right thing whether it be fading behind Gasol’s lead for once or rocking into his rhythmic fadeaway. He’ll need to be efficient, but he’ll also need his teammates to produce consistently—Bynum of course, but also Odom, Vujacic, and one of the rotating point guards (Derek Fisher, Jordan Farmar, or Brown). What makes this series fascinating is how mighty uncertain that last “if” appears, even on paper.
So, the prediction? Simple: In Obama We Trust. Lakers in six.