Monday, June 15, 2009

Above the Rim: NBA Finals Recap

With the Lakers 5-game defeat of the Magic in the NBA Finals, some long-standing questions have been answered. Kobe Bryant has won a title without Shaquille O'Neal and Phil Jackson has won the 10th title (passing Red Auerbach) that has eluded him since Shaq left LA.

Kobe was himself in this series, one of the best clutch players in the NBA, on his way to winning Finals MVP. Kobe averaged over 32 points, 5 rebounds, and 7 assists while hitting an array of shots in the series. There was little to find fault with in Kobe's game as the only real blemish in the series was his 7 turnovers in game 2, which the Lakers overcame to win in overtime.

Derek Fisher appeared to find his game just in time to snatch a victory away from the Magic in game 4 by hitting a three with 4.6 seconds left to send the game into overtime and then another to help the Lakers pull away in overtime. Overall, the Finals were Fisher's best series of the playoffs as he averaged 11 points per game and provided defense and veteran leadership.

The play of Pau Gasol, Trevor Ariza, and Lamar Odom, while not overwhelming, was more than enough support for Kobe to enable the Lakers to dominate this series. Gasol was quietly dominate, shooting at least 50% in every game (60% for the series) while averaging 18 points and 9 rebounds including 3 double-doubles. Ariza didn't shoot very well in the series but provided scoring, rebounding, and defense throughout the series to help the Lakers contain the Magic's potentially explosive offense. Odom scored 13 points per game off the bench and provided 2 double-doubles while getting the bulk of the playing time over Andrew Bynum. So much for the sugar crash that was publicized on ESPN for a week leading up to the series.

Jackson's contribution to the series may be overlooked amid all the storylines about Kobe, Dwight Howard, Jameer Nelson's return, and Fisher's jumper. Jackson's defensive strategy contained a Magic team that repeatedly came back from large deficits against the Cavs in the conference finals. The Magic shot over 33.3% from three-point range just once in the series (35.7% in a game 3 win) after shooting over 40% for the majority of the conference finals. This decrease provided the margin of victory in games 2 and 4, and possibly game 5. If Jackson's strategy did not address this aspect of the Magic's offense, this series could have been a 5-game Magic victory.

Also important to the Lakers victory is the job they did defensively on Dwight Howard. While Howard had a double-double in all five games and just missed a triple-double by one block in game 4, the Lakers held him below his scoring average and forced him into numerous turnovers. Howard scored 20 points just once in the series and was held to 12 and 11 in games 1 and 5, respectively. Also, Howard had 7 turnovers in both games 2 and 4 (both close losses), and his missed free throws late in the fourth quarter of game 4 gave Fisher the opportunity to tie the game with his late three-pointer.

Overall, the Magic were not consistent enough to defeat the Lakers. Rafer Alston was invisible in LA before finding his shot in game 3 in Orlando. Rashard Lewis played well in games 2 and 3, but shot below 30% for the rest of the series. Hedo Turkoglu played well, but with the rest of the team being held below their scoring averages, it wasn't enough. Jameer Nelson's return to the court appeared to have more of an emotional impact then anything, and Mickael Pietrus, like Alston, disappeared for two games. For a team like the Magic to win, they need to hit their perimeter shots, and when they go cold, like they did for most of the Finals, they are very beatable. Howard could not overcome the Lakers' bigs and the hot streaks disappeared enabling the Lakers to a relatively easy Finals victory.

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