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2009 NBA Finals Prediction: Lakers vs Magic! May 31, 2009

Posted by pacejmiller in Basketball, NBA.
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Despite what I said in my last post, and notwithstanding the fact that my exams aren’t over yet, I nevertheless feel obliged to take a few minutes to predict the winner of the NBA Finals for 2009 between the Orlando Magic and the LA Lakers.

Will the Lakers dunk all over the Magic?

Will the Lakers dunk all over the Magic?

The road to the Finals

Orlando Magic vs Cleveland Cavaliers

Momentum can be a fickle thing in the playoffs.

Hours before this post, the Orlando Magic had just disposed of heavy favourites the Cleveland Cavaliers in 6 games (103-90 in the final game).  Like most people, I accurately predicted that the series would not be close, but I just got the teams the wrong way around!

Like the Magic’s Dwight Howard (who scored 40 points and grabbed 14 boards to finish off the Cavs) said, people were disrespecting the Magic by looking forward to a Lebron-Kobe final before the first game of the Conference Finals (or perhaps the first game of the entire playoffs).  I admit I was one of those people.  Instead of looking at the plethora of matchup problems the Magic presented to the Cavs, all I could remember was that the Cavs hadn’t even lost a game before this series, sweeping both Detroit and Atlanta, winning by double digits in all games.  The Cavs had the best record in the league (66-16), the best home record in the league (39-2) and had home court advantage in this series – plus Lebron James was on fire.  Conversely, Orlando had struggled through two lacklustre performances against Philadelphia (6 games) and Boston (7 games), were playing inconsistently and up to that point, seemingly doubting themselves.  It wasn’t hard to assume that the Magic didn’t stand a chance.  No ESPN analyst predicted the Magic to win.  Not a single one.  Not even those that predicted a tough series for the Cavs because of the matchup difficulties.  After all, they did have the ultimate mismatch in Lebron vs anyone else.

However, as it turned out, Lebron was still on fire, averaging over 38 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists in the series, but it didn’t matter in the end.  When matched up face to face, the Magic were simply the better team.  If it weren’t for Lebron’s buzzer beating 3-pointer in game 2, the series may have been a sweep.

So what happened?  All the momentum in the world could not have stopped Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis, the Magic’s two big, versatile forwards, from wrecking havoc on the Cavs’ defense.  The Cavs were supposed to be one of the best defensive teams in the league, but they couldn’t stop the drives, three-pointers and they couldn’t stop Dwight Howard in the middle.  Ilgauskas, the Cavs’ 7’3″ big man, was abused by Howard’s quickness.  Their other post defenders, Anderson Varejao and Ben Wallace (what the heck happened to him?), were dominated by Howard’s size and strength.  The supposed ‘Master of Panic’, coach Stan Van Gundy, did a calm job of allowing Lebron to get his and daring his teammates to beat them.  They couldn’t.

With the exception of the Cavs’ game 5 victory, Lebron’s supporting cast couldn’t find the basket.  When Lebron needed them the most, they started to choke, especially ‘Mr Prediction’ Mo Williams, who was the difference maker in the Cavs’ historic regular season but just couldn’t make a shot.  I suppose you could look at this in two ways – either that Lebron HAD to be this good this series because his teammates weren’t giving him enough help, or his greatness in this series actually turned out to be detrimental to his team’s success because they turned into a one man team again that had to rely on him for everything.

This devastating loss must be demoralising for the Cavs, who carried a swagger into these playoffs some considered bordering on arrogance.  Especially for Lebron, who thought he had all the pieces he needed to contend for the championship this year, only to be let down again.  Unlike last season, when Lebron was all smiles after losing to the eventual champs Boston in 7 games, he was less graceful this time, leaving the arena without uttering a word to anyone and skipping the post-game press conference.  I think this was because last season he didn’t genuinely believe the Cavs had what it took to win the championship, whereas this season he knows they blew a perfect opportunity.  I guess now he knows what Kobe felt like before the Lakers got Gasol.

As for the Magic, they go into the Finals knowing that they are once again the underdogs, but undoubtedly with a new sense of confidence that they can shock the world one more time.

Or will the Magic block the title from the Lakers?

Or will the Magic block the title from the Lakers?

LA Lakers vs Denver Nuggets

This series was another example of the illusion of momentum.

The Lakers came into the Western Conference Finals having beaten Utah in 5 games but stretched to 7 difficult games by a seriously depleted Houston team, leaving people questioning whether they had improved mentally from last season’s disappointing finish when they lost to Boston in 6 games in the Finals.  On the other hand, Denver surprised a lot of people by devouring New Orleans and then Dallas in 5 games in both series.  Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups were both playing their best basketball and the supporting cast (in particular JR Smith, Nene and Kenyon Martin) were doing great in their respective roles.  While the odds still favoured the Lakers, no one would be overly shocked if Denver pulled an upset.

After the Lakers escaped in game 1 and lost game 2, doubts flared up as expected; it happened again when the Lakers returned to LA with the series tied 2-2.  The Lakers seemed uninterested in giving 100% effort for 48 minutes a night, Phil Jackson was being outcoached, and Kobe’s legacy was in doubt once again.  And then, the Lakers win both games 5 and 6 with relative ease, and all is forgotten.  It was as though no one had ever doubted them all along.  Such is the nature of the game.

The Nuggets go into the offseason no doubt disappointed, but in the eyes of many they have already overachieved.  They were already the second seed in the West this season, so the inevitable question would be whether they can take it to the next level and dethrone the Lakers’ stranglehold of the conference.  However, without some minor shifts in personnel or injury to the Lakers, it’s difficult to see that happening.

The Lakers?  They enter the Finals as favourites again, but can they finally start playing the way people expect them to play like game 6 against the Nuggets?

Match-ups

The Magic actually match up well with the Lakers, but not quite as well as they did against the Cavs.

Backcourt

Derek Fisher is a veteran point guard who has been on the big stage many times before, but was thoroughly manhandled by Aaron Brooks in the Houston series.  At 34, Fisher is not old, but he’s definitely lost a step or two, though he can still hit the big shot when called upon.  Rafer ‘Skip to My Lou’ Alston is perhaps not as tough as Jameer Nelson, the injured player he was brought in to replace, but he matches up well with Fisher because of his quickness and skills.  Alston will be a big key for the Magic.  If he can keep his sometimes erratic game in check and outplay Fisher, then at least that puts more pressure on Kobe Bryant to perform.

Speaking of Kobe, there’s not going to be anyone on the Magic that can stop him.  Of course, we said the same thing about Lebron, and look what happened there.  Kobe won’t have to put up numbers anywhere close to what Lebron produced because he won’t have to (and probably is incapable), but the Lakers will look to him with the game on the line, and there’s no one better in the clutch in the league right now.  Kobe’s game is also more varied than Lebron’s, so even with Dwight Howard in the middle he’ll be able to find ways to score.

The Magic will probably put Mickael Pietrus in the starting line up (instead of Courtney Lee) to guard Kobe, but regardless, he will need a lot of help.

No matter which way you look at it the Lakers have a significant advantage here.

Frontcourt

Orlando has a very impressive front court with 6’11” Dwight Howard anchoring the middle and versatile 6’10” forwards in Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu roaming the wings.  Both forwards can hit the three and they can drive, and as demonstrated in the Cavs series, they can both hit big shots when called upon.  It’s a frontcourt that will give any team problems.

However, the Lakers’ frontcourt is not too shabby either, with 7-footer Andrew Bynum, 7-footer Pau Gasol and the 6’8″ athletic forward in Trevor Ariza.  With the unimpressive way Bynum has been playing these playoffs, expect to see Lamar Odom play a lot of minutes off the bench.  Odom matches up well with both Lewis and Tukoglu, though that will leave Gasol trying to flop his way out of defending Dwight Howard straight up.

This is going to be where the series is won or lost for both teams.  There is definitely an opportunity for Orlando in the middle because Bynum hasn’t been playing well and is also prone to foul trouble.  Gasol is too lean to bang against Howard, though he is long and can cause problems at the other end of the floor.  Unlike the Cavs, however, the Lakers have a lot more big bodies to throw at Howard, such as DJ Mbenga and Josh Powell (who usually sit at the end of the bench).  If Howard can continue to hit his free throws at around 70% throughout the entire series and keep out of foul trouble himself, then Orlando has a decent chance.  It may mean that he will have to give up his defensive intensity on some plays to ensure that it happens.

Bench

On paper at least, the Lakers look like they have a strong bench, primarily because of Lamar Odom, who is definitely an X-factor in this series.  However, the rest of the Laker bench has been somewhat underused in these playoffs.  Odom has contributed a solid 12 points per game these playoffs, but the next highest bench scorer is Shannon Brown with 5.7.  Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic and Luke Walton round out the regular rotation, but none of these guys have been impact players in this year’s playoffs thus far.

That might not matter too much because Orlando does not have a strong bench either. If they start Pietrus, then Courtney Lee will be the first man off the bench, and he has averaged 8.8 points per game these playoffs.  Guys like JJ Reddick and Anthony Johnson are solid, but they won’t be asked to do more than just hit the open shot when the opportunity arises.

If either bench can produce a breakout series then that will definitely shift the advantage in their favour, but it appears the starters + Odom will be the key.

Coaching

Stan Van Gundy vs Phil Jackson.  One guy constantly seems like he’s about to have a heart attack, whereas the other looks like he might fall asleep any minute.  It’s a very interesting clash of styles.

No one is going to argue that Jackson, with 9 ‘coaching’ championship rings (and 11 total), can’t coach.  And while Van Gundy has been criticised in the past (including by Howard), he has done a very commendable job in first getting Orlando past a 3-2 deficit against Boston and then knocking off the Cavs.

It will be interesting to see whether Jackson will be ruffled if Orlando wins one of the first 2 games in LA, and whether Van Gundy will implode if Orlando loses both.

Intangibles

Orlando won both meetings against the Lakers in the regular season, 106-103 in Orlando in December, and 109-103 in LA in January.  Both games were a while ago, so they don’t necessarily mean much, but it does demonstrate that Orlando has the fire power to match up against the Lakers.  What is notable though is that Jameer Nelson, who is out injured, dominated both games, scoring 27 and 28 respectively in the games.  Accordingly, the pressure must fall on the shoulders of his replacement, Rafer Alston, and to a lesser extent, his backup Anthony Johnson.

Many players who have been to the Finals talk about the importance of championship experience.  They say until you’ve played in the Finals, you can’t possibly imagine what it’s like.  In this case, all the key players on the Lakers squad experienced the Finals last year, and Jackson, Fisher and Bryant all have championship rings.  That said, the experience didn’t help much against the Boston Celtics last season.  Personally, I believe it will be a factor, but probably only in the first and last games of the series.

Also of importance is the different game structure of the Finals, which is played 2-3-2 as opposed to the normal 2-2-1-1-1 in the preceding rounds.  I think this benefits the team with home court advantage, which in this case is Los Angeles.  The playoffs are about adjustments, and giving another team 3 consecutive chances to crack you on your home floor may prove to be decisive.  Then again, who can forget when the Detroit Pistons crushed the LA Lakers in the 2004 Finals where they swept the middle 3 games?

Lastly, there is the motivation factor.  The Lakers lost a series many thought they would win in last year’s finals, so it’s safe to assume they would be hungry for redemption and would not take Orlando lightly.  Kobe is still seeking that first elusive title (and Finals MVP) without Shaq by his side, and Jackson will be trying again to overtake Red Auerbach for the most coaching rings.  On the other hand, Orlando must know that this is a rare opportunity for them.  Unlike the Lakers, who will continue to be favourites for the NBA title as long as their core team is in tact, Orlando knows they might not get back here again if Boston is fully healthy and Lebron gets more support.  Hence it’s hard to say the Lakers will be more motivated.

Prediction

After getting burned by my prediction for the Cleveland-Orlando series (where I pathetically predicted the Cavs would win in 5), I’m going to place less emphasis on momentum and the big picture and focus more on the matchups and intricacies of the teams.

I see the series comes down to a number of key factors.  The first is whether Dwight Howard can stay out of foul trouble.  The second is whether he can hit his free throws.  The third is whether the Magic can continue to hit their open 3-pointers as they have all playoffs.  If so, then the Magic can definitely pull off the upset.  They are a good road team, having disposed of both Philadelphia and Boston on the road, and contributed to 2 out of the 3 home losses for Cleveland all season and playoffs.  Therefore, if they head back to LA for the final 2 games up 3-2, they have a good chance of winning.

However, ultimately the Lakers look too strong on paper, so I’ll have to go with them in 6 games.  I hope the Magic prove me wrong.

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Comments»

1. Around The NBA - May 31, 2009

Lakers In 5!!! Magic Are In For A Rude Wake Up Call.

2. Nate - June 1, 2009

People here in Orlando went nuts! I was lucky enough to be there at the Amway Arena on two of the games, including the final one. Lebron James was pissed! His face once the game (and his season) was over was priceless.
Go Magic!!

pacejmiller - June 1, 2009

Wow, lucky you! It was a little classless of Lebron to walk off without congratulating the victors. Judging from interviews since it doesn’t look like he thinks that way though.

3. Gregory - June 4, 2009

Hi Pacejmiller!

Read your lengthy but detailed analysis-prediction for the Lakers-Magic finals, and you put it thoroughly. I enjoyed reading it.
First I’ll admit I am an anti-Lakers (or shall I say anti-Kobe ,I am a Magic Johnson fan!) so I’ll root for the Magic as they are the underdogs (I always love underdogs!).
And second, let me put my thoughts about these two teams. The Magic overcame all the odds to be the “Beast of the East”. A few favored them to win over Boston or Cavs (I admit I didn’t) yet they defeated them (wondered maybe if Garnett could have made a difference). Their game is a pretty simple balanced inside-outside attack with defense anchored on Howard. On the other hand the Lakers has the best versatile offensive player (for me better than LBJ, don’t like him either) and a heck of a defensive player in KB24. Kobe has shown the maturity, leadership and mental toughness in the play-offs and he deserves my due respect (though I still don’t like him.hehehe). They are out to win it all this time. During their 2nd rd. match-up with Houston I rooted for Houston to win though I know it won’t happen, and cheered for Denver (best chance for an upset). But as I watched that Denver series after Gm 3 I doubted if Denver had what it takes to defeat the Lakers. And they didn’t. Both the Magic and Lakers have gone through a hell of a series to reach the finals. KB24 and company are here for a vengeance and they are focused on finishing it all the way whereas the Magic could just be happy and contented they have reached this far. I do hope they (Magic) motivate themselves that this could be the only opportunity they’ll have to be champions and chance to “Beat L.A!” for the crown. For me motivation, hunger and desire to win will lead the team to that Larry O’Brien trophy in the end. I will believe the Magic can win but my mind says the Lakers will. So I will just wait and enjoy this finals series. Go Magic! :-)

Thanks,
Gregory
myxbooks.wordpress.com

pacejmiller - June 6, 2009

Thanks for commenting Greg. I am trying to stay neutral in my assessment but I am also rather anti-Kobe. I’m a fan of what he’s capable of but not his attitude. Magic are down 1-0 now but as usual, commentators are reading too much into a single game. If the Magic can win game 2 they’ll starting questioning whether the Lakers have it again, and back and forth until one team wins it.

4. commentbug - March 14, 2010

lakers will win about 2 or 3 more rings before kobe retires.

http://www.commentbug.com


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