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NBA Finals Preview

   by Al McMordie - 06/03/2009

Cleveland.com said it best: “It's time to put the puppets away. There will be no LeBron James-Kobe Bryant NBA Finals.â€쳌 It looked like a shoo-in for the top two seeds to meet, setting up a Kobe/LeBron Finals. But once the Eastern Conference Finals began, you could see the Magic were a terrific team that matched up very well with the Cavs. In Game 1, Orlando shot 55% and stole the first game as a +9 dog against what had been the best defensive team in the regular season.

They continued to top 100 points and shoot lights-out because they matched up so well in the frontcourt. The final Game 6 win, 103-90, was no longer a shock or a big upset. The bigger, better team won.

So now what? The No. 3 seeded Magic take on the No. 1 seed in the West, the Lakers, for the title. At first glance, it’s the battle of the big men, with both teams stacked up front with 6-10, 6-11 and 7-foot trees. I can’t recall such a Finals matchup of big men since 1986, when the Celtics' Hall of Fame frontcourt troika matched up with 7-foot Hakeem Olajuwon and 7-4 Ralph Sampson.

This looks like a good matchup for the Lakers. With Cleveland getting knocked off, LA now gets home court advantage, a huge advantage it didn’t have a year ago. The great Boston defense and physical play smacked them around in six games, coming from 24-points down to win Game 4 and winning by 39 in Game 6. The Lakers were embarrassed and have incentive (and experience) on their side.

Orlando's strength is up front with Dwight Howard, 6-10 Rashard Lewis and even 6-10 Hedo Turkoglu, who can shoot from long range or drive down low. They have used that big advantage all thru the playoffs. But that won’t be an edge now, as the Lakers are the only team bigger up front, with a pair of 7-footers (Gasol, Bynum) plus 6-10 Lamar Odom.

Then there is some guy named Kobe Bryant in the backcourt who Orlando will have to contend with. The Magic backcourt isn’t really as good as you might think after watching them rain threes on Boston and Cleveland. In five of seven games the banged-up Celtics held Orlando to 95 points or less, something the Cavs couldn’t do. And Orlando had no answer for LeBron, who averaged 38.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 8.2 assists in the series. You may think the game plan was to let LeBron strut his stuff and worry about the other guys, which is partially true, but it’s also true that Orlando has no backcourt defensive stopper. That will be a problem against the Lakers and Kobe. They also lost their All-Star guard in mid-season, Jameer Nelson, a terrific young talent. Nelson may be able to play this series, but will be very limited, perhaps just 15 minutes per game.

The Magic swept the season series with LA. Orlando had a 106-103 victory over the Lakers December 20th in Orlando. They shot 48.6% and held LA to 41% shooting, though the rebounding battle was even. Bynum had three points and five fouls in only 12 minutes. Bryant missed a three at the buzzer that would have sent the game to overtime, but made 14 of 31 shots, and all 11 of his free throws for 41 points.

Stan Van Gundy joked afterward, "I don't think anybody is coming to me for a gig about defending Kobe. We better keep winning games, so I can stay employed." The Magic made 12 of 33 threes. LA is a great free throw shooting team and hit 24-of-25 in that game, while Orlando missed 15 freebies (24-of-39, 61%). Poor free throw shooting should hurt them at some point in this series, both straight up and against the number.

They met again, January 16, in LA and Orlando won, 109-103. LA shot 39%, the Magic 44%. Orlando won with a big fourth quarter and a whopping 54-40 edge in rebounds. Howard had 25 points and 20 rebounds. By the way, the leading scorer in BOTH those games for the Magic was Jameer Nelson (28 and 27). Orlando missed 11 free throws in that rematch (67%).

Do not read too much into the regular season meetings. LA was playing the second of a back to back in the first meeting, and its 3rd game in four nights in the rematch. One final thought: Who do you think Shaq is rooting for? He couldn’t stand coach Jeff Van Gundy when they were in Miami, and he couldn’t stand Kobe in LA. I suspect the Magic. Good luck, as always...Al McMordie.

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