Tuesday, June 2, 2009

NBA 2009 Finals preview

By Rick Morris

The Disneyland vs. Disneyworld matchup in the NBA Finals pairs two teams who have a great many similarities in form. They have clearly proven to be the two best teams in the league thus far notwithstanding any clueless mouthbreathers who still believe that Cleveland was better but somehow choked or was cursed. Ironically, while most observers seemed to be anticipating a Lebron vs. Kobe matchup of the game’s two best players, this pairing actually features two teams with more similarities than the Lakers and Cavs even if the two key players occupy two radically different positions.

^ They both have a number of tall guys who can really shoot. This element caused Cleveland no shortage of headaches in the Eastern Conference Finals. Key among them are a couple of Euros in “The Geico Caveman” Pao Gasol and “The Turkish Bird” Hedo Turkoglu.

^ They’re both pretty deep, with a number of players able to fit interchangeable positions and roles.

^ Each has a potentially potent “X-factor” – Lamar Odom has All-Star upside, but only shows it in some games, while Michael Pietrus has to prove that he is a legitimate late bloomer and not somebody living out his 15 minutes of fame.

^ Each knows what it’s like to reach the Finals without a key piece of the puzzle: last year, the Lakers won the West without injured center Andrew Bynum and this year the Magic got through the East sans banged-up point guard Jameer Nelson.

^ Each has a coach who had years taken off of his life by dealing with Shaq’s various issues. That similarity is probably the only one, though, between Phil Jackson (best known for the pursuit of his tenth championship ring) and Stan Van Gundy (best known for having a doppelganger famous for providing “mustache rides”). Advantage Lakers.

^ Each is bolstered by a spoiled Sun Belt fanbase who will never, ever abandon their beloved teams – unless things start going a bit sour!

Late word that Nelson may surprisingly suit up for Orlando in these games renders the series that much harder to evaluate. Orlando beat the Lakers in both meetings with him, and clearly, he’s a far superior player to streaky streetball specialist Rafer Alston, but the team may struggle to re-assimilate their old quarterback after months without him. Sometimes the sacrifice of continuity for talent is too great a price to pay.

Orlando clearly relies much more on jump shooting than LA and, indeed, few teams with the Magic’s reliance on mid-range and outside shots have tended to advance this far in the playoffs. A regression to the mean might be due after the scorching series against Cleveland. If it comes, it will be most harmful to the Magic and could cause a very short and painful series for them.

In terms of matchups, though, while the Magic is unfortunate to be facing a team far better able to defend them physically than Cleveland, they are also fortunate that most of LA’s power forward play is pretty soft and will thus not be very problematic for Rashard Lewis. However, with Bynum being counted on to neutralize Dwight Howard at least somewhat, the Lakers are a good bet to abandon Cleveland’s ruinous (no)help defense and play the shooters man-up most of the time. Now, it’s easy to say going in “Let Howard get his,” but if he starts tallying any 40/20 games, we’ll see if “Big Chief Triangle” sticks with the game plan.

In the end, the suspicion that we have seen the best of Orlando through their stunning playoff run and have not yet seen all that Los Angeles can produce leads to a pick in that direction. Kobe Bryant has copious experience on this stage and an ego that feeds a tremendous will to win. The Lakers have shown a disgraceful pattern of sleeping through at least one playoff game in each series and if they have any early success against Orlando, they will be tempted to repeat it. Doing so once will be costly and ensure a long series. Doing so more than once will render this prediction a false read of the future. Lakers in 7.

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