Monday, June 1, 2009

Above the Rim: NBA Finals Preview

Kobe Bryant will lead the Lakers against Superman Dwight Howard and the Magic in the NBA Finals. While the Magic won both regular season matchups, the Lakers will win this matchup for the championship, cementing Kobe’s legacy with his fourth championship and first without Shaquille O’Neal. Kobe’s detractors will finally have to give him his due and Phil Jackson will finally have his tenth title.

Conference Finals
Eastern- Magic in 6 (my pick- Cavaliers in 5)
Western- Lakers in 6 (my pick- Nuggets in 7)

If the Lakers play smart defensively by not double-teaming Dwight Howard down low, they should win this series easily. However, if they insist on double-teaming Howard, the Magic will make them pay by converting wide-open three-pointers, much like they did in defeating Cleveland. The Magic shot over 40% in three of their four wins in the series. The only time they didn’t shot 40%, they hit 39 of 51 free throws to make up for the lack of three pointers. The Lakers should focus on shutting down Rashard Lewis, Hedo Turkoglu, Rafer Alson, and Mickael Pietrus instead of Dwight Howard. If Howard scores 40 points, but the Magic only hit 5 or 6 three pointers, the Lakers will win the game. However, if the Magic can combine a 25-30 point game from Howard with 10 three pointers, the Lakers may lose this series.

Point Guard- Derek Fisher vs. Rafer Alston
Fisher hasn’t had the best playoffs offensively, but he is a veteran with finals experience which will help the Lakers in this series. Alston is a offensive, shooting point guard who had 18 point and 26 point games against the Cavs in games 3 and 4 of the conference finals. Fisher has scored in the double figures in only 3 of his last 13 games, but he is a savvy veteran and will make Alston work.
Advantage- Lakers

Shooting Guard- Kobe Bryant vs. Courtney Lee
Courtney Lee has hit some big shots for the Magic and has played well, but he is out of his league both offensively and defensively against Kobe. Lee has hit double figures just twice since his sinus injury while Kobe has scored under 20 just three times this postseason (and has scored 40+ three times). Kobe can take over a game, and Lee does not have the defensive skills to cover Kobe. Defensively Kobe will shut Lee down and shouldn’t have to exert himself too much to do so. This will allow Kobe to stay fresher during games and be more of a force offensively. At times against the Nuggets, Kobe looked tired and the Lakers needed Pau Gasol to carry the offensive load. This round, Kobe should be able to stay refreshed and take over when he has to.
Advantage- Lakers

Small Forward- Trevor Ariza vs. Hedo Turkoglu
Ariza is a shut down defender that has come on in the playoffs. He has sealed numerous games with his defense so far and provides enough offense to punish teams for not paying attention to him defensively. Turkoglu is a good player, but highly inconsistent. He can both score and pass, but has limited agility and could struggle with someone like Ariza guarding him. In the conference finals, Turkoglu struggled when LeBron, another lengthy, agile defender, was guarding him, so expect more of the same with Ariza matched up on Hedo.
Advantage- Lakers

Power Forward- Lamar Odom vs. Rashard Lewis
While Odom may not start for the Lakers, he is going to see the majority of minutes at the 4 because he presents the best matchup defensively on Lewis, a quick, athletic power forward with 3-point shooting range. Odom has the quickness and size to matchup on Lewis, something the Cavs lacked when LeBron was on Turkoglu. The Lakers have a better mix of athletic big men than the Cavs and should be able to matchup better defensively. Odom may also be able to score fairly routinely against Lewis as neither player is known for their defensive prowess. If Odom can score 2 points for every 3 points Lewis scores, the Lakers have to feel like that is a win because Kobe will make that up against Lee.
Advantage- Magic

Center- Pau Gasol vs. Dwight Howard
While the Lakers will play Andrew Bynum here at times, Gasol will get most of the minutes. Howard is going to play like a monster in the post, grabbing rebounds, blocking shots, and dunking. To neutralize his effect on the game, the Lakers should concentrate on keeping him off the offensive glass where a lot of his points come from put backs and to drive at him to get him in foul trouble. When the Cavs were effective against Orlando, it was when they were able to minimize Howard’s minutes and aggressiveness by getting him into foul trouble. Howard is going to score 20+ points and grab 12-15 rebounds and that should be ok with the Lakers. Howard scoring 30+ per game shouldn’t be a big deal unless the Magic shooters are hitting a lot of three-pointers. Gasol should also have a good series as his range will force Howard to step out of the paint defensively. Gasol is one of the most skilled big men in the league, and while he can’t match Howard’s strength or athleticism, his passing and shooting ability will be able to counter Howard’s effect.
Advantage- Magic

Bench- Lakers vs. Mickael Pietrus
The only bench player that really matters for Orlando is sniper Pietrus. He outscored Cleveland’s bench by himself in the conference finals, but the Lakers bench is deeper and more effective than the Cavs. Andrew Bynum, Shannon Brown, Jordan Farmar, Luke Walton, and Sasha Vujacic all give the Lakers quality minutes and offense off the bench. Not only should they be able to match Pietrus’s scoring off the bench, but they will be able to keep the Lakers’ starters fresh while Pietrus will only be able to give Turkoglu, Alston, and Lee breathers. The Lakers have Walton and Bynum down low to spell Gasol and Odom, while the Magic only have Marcin Gortat and Tony Battie to play in the post. Walton and Bynum both have a wide advantage offensively over Gortat and Battie, and Walton has the agility to defend either Lewis or Turkoglu on the perimeter. Vujacic and Brown are both offensive powder kegs that can score in bunched if they get hit, much like Pietrus. Overall, the Lakers have more impact players off the bench and should win this battle.
Advantage- Lakers

The Lakers have the advantage at both guard positions and off the bench, while the Magic own an advantage on the frontline. However, the Lakers advantage at both guard positions is fairly wide, while the margin at small forward and power forward is almost a push because the Lakers matchup well with the Magic at those positions. While the Magic have more skill, the Lakers may be able to neutralize it. While the Magic have Superman in the middle, Gasol is an all-star as well and should be able to counter most of Howard’s offense. Off the bench, if Pietrus has an off game, the Lakers will have a wide advantage in bench scoring and will win that matchup.

Prediction- Lakers in 6, MVP Kobe Bryant

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