Tonight, while many in the world will still be buzzing over President Obama’s visit to Egypt, a great many of us will be watching a whole other drama unfold – the NBA Finals.
Defending Western Conference Champions, the Los Angeles Lakers will take on the newly minted Eastern Conference Champs – the Orlando Magic. The best-of-seven series starts in LA because the Lakers have the better record of the two teams. If the series ends up going the distance, then the last two games would also be held in LA. So, thinking of lucky number 7, here are the seven things to keep in mind as you watch.
1. The NBA loves drama. but the final's structure makes it hard for the underdog to win. Conventional wisdom tells us that the Lakers, losers last year, are hungry and have experience, and therefore are poised to win. The format is 2-3-2, which puts a lot of pressure on a younger and less experienced team like the Magic. To win, as the lower seeded team, they must steal a game in LA. Lakers Coach Phil Jackson (who has won as a player and as a coach) has never lost a series he has coached when his teams won the first game. ... (continue reading)
2. 39 Points. Last year the Lakers strode into the finals with swagger and confidence. But their flashy West-coast style was no match for the defensively minded Boston Celtics. The series looked closer than it was. In the end the Celtics took out all their frustrations on the Lakers, demolishing them by 39 points in the clinching game. That was the largest margin of defeat in the history of the finals. The Lakers have returned this year, wiser and hungrier. They have a lot to prove, so I pity the fool that gets in their way!
3. Defense wins championships. Last year Kobe and Co. lost to the Celtics who had the Defensive Player of the Year, Kevin Garnett. By his sheer will, the Celtics dismantled the Lakers’ offensive barrage. The Orlando Magic to have the same approach. Although they are not as physical as the Celtics, the Magic also have a big man who was named the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year – Dwight Howard. He will go up against Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum in the paint. If Howard stays out of foul trouble he can effectively clog up the middle and make the slashing guards of the Lakers think twice about venturing into Superman's lair. I would be remiss to not mention Mickael Pietrus, the Magic swingman who neutralized Paul Pierce of the Celtics, clamped down LeBron James, and who is now better prepared than anyone else in the world to guard the unguardable Kobe Bryant.
4. The Odom Factor. Lamar Odom is a big man who has the skills to play small. He can shoot on the run, rebound, lead the break, knock down three pointers (did I mention I went to college with him?) and dish to the open man. When he is playing well, the Lakers are virtually unbeatable.
5. 4th Quarter Heroics. Kobe, the 30-year-old Laker icon, is known as the best closer in the game: with the outcome on the line, he is the one guy you want to give the ball to. Look for Kobe to take over each game in the 4th quarter, no matter what the odds. However, the Magic have had their own clutch performances in this playoffs. Rashard Lewis, the best-paid player on Orlando’s roster, has had horrendous play in the first three quarters only to bounce back and give spectacular performances in the waning minutes of the 4th. Time and time again in this playoffs the Magic have battled back from big deficits using basketball’s equivalent of baseball's home run: the three-pointer. Look for both teams to play like champs in the final quarter. No lead will be safe. Each game should be close.
6. Great Coaches. There is no doubt who is the better coach. Phil Jackson is one of the best coaches in the NBA ever. He has proven his winning ways as a player with the Knicks, as coach of the Bulls' dynasty and during the Shaq and Kobe era, winning three in a row. The last two times his teams have made it back to the final they have come up short – almost humiliatingly so. On the flip side, Stan Van Gundy has to prove himself on this stage. Both coaches are shrewd strategists and the way they arrange matchups will be key. With an agile, quick lineup, look for Jackson to play less of Bynum and give more minutes to guys who can spread the floor and get a hand in the face of 3-ball shooters. Van Gundy has decided that Jameer Nelson, who torched LA in the two regular season games they played (both wins for the Magic), to return to the lineup. The Magic have no doubt looked closely at their wins from the season and at the play of the Houston Rockets who took LA to seven games. The Lakers are weak at the point guard position; look for Van Gundy to put pressure on Phil Jackson there. It really is all about match-ups. The Magic have not faced big guards like the Lakers so they will have to adjust. If you like compelling coaching match-ups, this is certainly an NBA final for the ages.
7.Who wants it more? Can you quantify “hunger”? Are the Lakers hungrier because of losing most recently or the Magic, as a franchise feeding off of the collective energy of their fans who have not been this deep in the playoffs since a kid named Shaq lead his Magic team there in 1996? Lakers-Magic will be a historic final because of who is not there (you know who I mean: LeBron) and because of the generally gloomy mood of a public that is hungering for some drama and entertainment. Bragging rights to legend and myth are hanging in the balance. Will it be Superman and his “3-point League” or Kobe and his Hollywood heroes? Want to know what I think? I'll lean on that pillar of wisdom named Barack Obama and call it the way he did: Lakers in six.