Yeah, I know. I’m going out on a major limb here with that headline, but rest assured the NBA Finals prediction you so eagerly await will be at the bottom of this post. Feel free to check it out if you want. I won’t be offended. But for those with a little bit of patience, get ready for a trip through the brain of a basketball expert to see how my basketball prognostication skills arrived at the conclusion you’ll see at the end.
Alright, now that I’ve been successful in making sure everyone thinks I have the ego of John Hollinger, Chad Ford and Marc Stein combined (stay tuned for my upcoming chat on ESPN.com, where I will only answer questions posed by myself), it’s time to start exploring how this series is going to turn out.
Dwight Howard absolutely destroyed the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 6, as there was no possible way Big Z nor Anderson Varejao could stop him from looking like Shaq in 2000 against Felton Spencer. Since Andrew Bynum couldn’t stay out of foul trouble against Nene, and Pau Gasol isn’t exactly known for his strength, the only time the Lakers might be able to stop Howard from scoring is by putting him on the line or double-teaming.
Reason No. 1 why the Los Angeles Lakers will win: “And that’s foul No. 2 on Howard, who’ll have to sit the rest of the first quarter.”
Bynum can’t help fouling anybody he’s defending, but Howard will have his troubles with the larger Bynum as well. Howard’s got huge shoulders (and he’ll be happy to show you if you ask…he’s like a 6’10” version of Matthew McConaughey), but Bynum is bigger everywhere else, most importantly in terms of height and reach. If Bynum is aggressive offensively and Gasol gets Howard in the air on some up-and-unders, Howard will be on the bench in favor of Marcin Gortat far more often than Stan Van Gundy would like.
The Lakers only needed six games to dispose of the Denver Nuggets after edging the Houston Rockets in seven games, even though the Rockets were without Yao Ming for a good portion of that series. Why? Aaron Brooks and Kyle Lowry were impossible covers for Derek Fisher (the only point guard on the roster Phil Jackson truly trusts), while the slower Chauncey Billups was relatively easy to contain. Alston isn’t quite as fast as Brooks anymore, but he’s certainly quicker than anybody on the Lakers.
Reason No. 2 why the Lakers will win: Rafer Alston is crazy
Alston isn’t quite a malcontent, and he’s fit in surprisingly well since being traded to Orlando after Jameer Nelson’s shoulder surgery. Still, he’s a very streaky shooter who’s never been on a stage like this before. It’s very plausible to imagine a scenario where Alston drives into Fisher and gets called for an offensive foul, leading to “Skip to my Lou” pulling a Vicente Padilla and hurling the ball at Fisher’s head. Remember, Alston’s the same guy who smacked Eddie House right on top of his dome in plain view of everyone in the Magic/Celtics series.
Reason No. 3 why the Magic will win: Lamar Odom under pressure
To call Odom the “X-factor” (one of the most overused terms in sports, along with “upside”) is superfluous, since Odom’s been labeled the most important player of every Laker playoff series since joining the team. Odom’s got a lot of red flags going against him in this series, however. He looked like a frightened toddler on his first day of preschool against the Celtics in last year’s Finals, he’s one awkward landing away from tweaking his back again, he has a penchant for disappearing when he’s needed most, he’s two weeks away from being an unrestricted free agent and apparently Odom eats more candy than a 10-year-old on allowance day. He’ll need to grab at least 11 rebounds per game and force Rashard Lewis, Howard and Hedo Turkoglu to guard him in the paint. Can he do it? Sure. Will he do it? Who the hell knows…
We’ve seen it all before: the stepping out of bounds, the threes off the side of the backboard early in the shot clock, the reach-in fouls at the end of shot clocks and quarters. The fact Pietrus is going to play an integral role in the 2009 NBA Finals is something no Warriors observer can truly wrap their head around without needing Excedrin, and his job will be guarding Kobe Bryant, a man infinitely more angry, determined and experienced than Air France MP. Pietrus may have swapped his Kobe Zoom IVs for Jordans, but it’s hard to envision a scenario in which Bryant doesn’t own Pietrus in this series.
Reason No. 4 the Magic will win: They got range
Every possession in the Magic/Cavs series looked the same: Cleveland would give it to LeBron and force him to come up with something, then Orlando would dribble down the floor and shoot a three. Orlando has turned into the 1996 Kentucky Wildcats in these playoffs, taking and making more threes than anyone else (8.6 made threes per game on 23.8 attempts). With Lewis, Turkoglu, Alston, Courtney Lee, J.J. Reddick and Pietrus (from the corner, anyway) hanging around, no Laker lead will be safe in this series. Not good news for a team that isn’t really adept at holding big leads in the first place.
The Lakers have been the best team at defending threes in the playoffs, forcing opponents to shoot 31.3% from behind the arc over the postseason (in truth the Pistons 3-point FG% defense was 30.9%, but that was in four games where Cleveland barely needed to stay awake to defeat Detroit). In the regular season L.A. was 3rd in 3-point defense at 34.5%, just behind Orlando who allowed a 3-point FG% of 34.2%. In other words, both of these teams are long, it will be difficult to shoot threes in this series, meaning the team that goes inside and gets to the line will have the better chance of winning — like every other NBA Finals I can remember.
Reason No. 5 the Magic will win: The element of surprise
You know that little motto coaches try to perpetuate, that to win teams have to take everything one game at a time? With the Lakers, you know that can’t possibly be the case. Phil Jackson is always talking big picture, the team decides selectively when and where to either turn it on or conserve energy, and coaches have to be prepared for anything (injuries, foul trouble, specific matchups, etc.) at any time. Jackson, his staff and probably his team were mentally preparing to face the Boston Celtics after last season, until their attentions turned to the Cleveland Cavaliers after the Cavs soared to the NBA’s best regular season record and an effortless first two rounds of the playoffs.
Now Jackson has to figure out how to deal with a surging Howard, another quick point guard in Alston and a battle at the forward spots that will either leave the Lakers at a size or speed disadvantage depending on which forwards are in the game against Turkoglu and Lewis.
Even more difficult for Jackson may be convincing his team to come out with the same effort against the Magic that they surely would have against either the Celtics or the LeBrons. In a 2-3-2 format, one misstep at home could be catastrophic for the Lakers in this series. They can’t lay an egg tonight or on Sunday like they did at home in Game 1 against Houston or in Game 2 against Denver.
Sure, people are acting like he’s a genius version of Rick Majerus mixed with Ron Jeremy right now, but SVG has had a fairly shaky season for a coach that just reached the NBA Finals (for the first time, don’t forget). When Shaq called out Van Gundy for panicking under pressure it was widely thought of as standard Shaq-fulery, but then Gortat essentially said the same thing when the Magic were on the verge of getting upset by the 76ers in the first round of these playoffs. Weeks later Howard called out his coaching staff for not getting him the ball after a loss to Boston in the second round and seemingly escaped any reprimand from Van Gundy (everyone knows that Bynum can’t stand Jackson right now, but even if he were as good as Howard you wouldn’t see him so blatantly and publicly complaining…subtly maybe, but not during a postgame press conference).
Van Gundy had his way with Mike Brown in the Eastern Conference Finals, but that was kind of like Mike Nolan out-maneuvering Scott Linehan — inevitable, but hardly impressive. Both teams have had quite a bit of time to prepare for the NBA Finals (five days for the Lakers, four for the Magic), and one would think that has to be an advantage for Jackson in his 12th Finals appearance.
This isn’t the MLB All-Star Game, so ties aren’t allowed — who’s going to win this Disney production?
We know Kobe is going to perform well, but what Kobe will show up in Game 1? The angry star who’s hellbent on embarrassing Pietrus and Lee, chucking 20 shots in the first half and yelling at Jordan Farmar for missing the only shot he takes, or the relaxed facilitator who you won’t realize has 28 points and 12 assists until he’s at the free throw line in the fourth quarter, icing the game?
Will Gasol keep missing free throws? Will Howard keep making them more often than not? Will Sasha Vujacic keep shooting, even though he’s become about as reliable from 3-point range as Tony Randolph Tony Soprano? Will anybody who doesn’t live in the Bay Area care that there are six former Warriors in this series (Alston, Pietrus, Adonal Foyle, D.J. Mbenga, Josh Powell and Fisher)? Will Jeff Van Gundy leave his broadcasting chair, run out onto the court and injure Bynum’s knee again by clinging to the young center’s leg as he did to Alonzo Mourning way back when?
Who knows about any of that (except for the Warriors question — the answer being “no”), but from the Q&A session we just went through above, there’s only one conclusion:
Lakers in 7.