After correctly predicting the NBA finals in my review of the conference finals, I find it important that I hurry aboard to try and keep up my good name by predicting the NBA Finals. In all honesty, I couldn't be happier with this matchup. Not only did I pick it, these, in my opinion, are the two best teams that the NBA could offer at this point. Both of these teams have faced adversity. Both have taken shots in the media and Stan Van Gundy and Pau Gasol have been the most critiqued figures in the media since the postseason started. But how did they get here?
The Magic stumbled at the end of the season, coupling blowout losses with an injury to Hedo Turkoglu and really entered the playoffs on a sour note. Furthermore, two of their first three games of the postseason they lose to the 76ers on fantastic last second shots by Andre Iguodala and Thaddeus Young. However, with the team down 2-1 in Philadelphia and with the game tied, Hedo Turkoglu came through with the biggest shot this season for the Magic, nailing a three in the final seconds to tie the series at two apiece. After Dwight Howard was suspended for game six in that series, the team really came together and played their most complete game of the postseason, winning and exiling Philadelphia in six games. The defending champion Boston Celtics came next and the Magic, again, were dealt a crushing loss in game 4. With the Magic up 2-1, just seconds away from taking a commanding 3-1 lead, Boston forward Glen Davis nails a terrific shot and the series is tied. The Celtics went on to win game 5 and all looked lost for Orlando. But display the stuff that champions are made of, Orlando took care of business at home in game 6 and then crushed Boston on their home court in game 7. By the time the Conference Finals came around, the Magic had already seen everything anyone could throw at them. So when the Cavaliers jumped out to 20 point leads three different times in this series, it should not surprise that Orlando came back in all of them because they've never displayed a lack of effort out on the court. Thoroughly exposing and defeating the Cavaliers, Orlando now is making it's second finals appearance in franchise history but is looking for their first championship.
The Los Angeles Lakers are one of the most storried teams in history. In the present tense, they're probably the most talented team in basketball. That's what makes it so frustrating when you see how they coast from time to time out there on the court. Now making their 30th appearance in the NBA finals in franchise history, the Lakers' road was just as rocky but was more publicly ridiculed than Orlando's. After defeating the Jazz in five games, the Lakers faced off against the Houston Rockets in what turned out to be a brutal, physical battle. After Yao Ming got injured and the Lakers took a 2-1 series lead, it looked like all was lost for Houston. But the Lakers allowed the depleted Rockets to blow them out two more games before the Lakers took the series in seven games. After letting Houston take them to seven, the Lakers were suddenly everyone's favorite team to hate and people wrongfully bashed them before their series with the Nuggets. Aside from an embarassing game 4, the Lakers genuinely played good, complete basketball against the Nuggets, including an impressive game 5 and a mind blowingly convincing game 6 in order to get the team to the finals. Kobe Bryant looks to win his fourth NBA Championship, his first without Shaquille O'Neal, and bring Phil Jackson his 10th, which would put Phil alone atop the list of coaches with championshp rings.
How do these teams match up and who has the advantage in what area? That will now be addressed.
Western Conference Champion: (1) Los Angeles Lakers (65-17) vs. Eastern Conference Champion: (3) Orlando Magic (59-23)
Why The Lakers Will Win: The Lakers hold the advantage of having the best player in the game on their side. Kobe Bryant proved in the Denver series that he is still capable of going above and beyond the call of duty in order to ensure that his team wins that elusive championship. With an extremely talented roster, the Lakers are capable of throwing many defenders at the Magic and are athletic enough and talented enough to give Orlando fits on defense, something that Philadelphia did but that Boston and Cleveland really couldn't. In that lineup to guard Orlando, the Lakers could also score very efficently as all of the players on the court are capable of scoring from different spots on the floor. The bench has been really hit or miss for Los Angeles, but usually either Lamar Odom, Sasha Vujacic, Shannon Brown, Jordan Farmar or Luke Walton will come up big one game or another. They usually have at least one player each game stand tall. It would help if all of them could get on the same page, but the current formulat hasn't crippled them. Trevor Ariza will be huge in this series, as he has been all postseason, because finally there is a player whom Orlando will face that can guard Rashard Lewis. With Ariza being tall, athletic and even strong enough to stay in front of Lewis, Lewis may have a hard time. Lewis has had a tendency to show up in spurts for Orlando and Ariza can really contain those spots.
Why The Magic Will Win: The Magic can't be criticized for a lack of effort or be accused of coasting at all this postseason because they're not talented enough to do that and they haven't faced competition where they can get away with it. As a result, for nineteen excruciating games, the Magic have had to go out and battle for four quarters. Public perception would tell us that means the Magic could be exhausted by this point but I truly believe that those battles are the best experience a team can have entering the NBA Finals. Well prepared now for any situation they could possibly experience, the Magic have shown that they can jump out on you for a big lead, come back on you if you have a big lead, win close games, handle tough losses and still stand tall throughout all of it. They have the most unguardable player in the series in Dwight Howard. The Lakers don't play Andrew Bynum often and he's been such a foul machine all postseason that I can't imagine him getting more than 12-15 minutes a game in this series. That leaves Pau Gasol in the game against Dwight more often than not. When that happens, Gasol's lack of strength in addition to wanting to avoid foul trouble will allow Howard to have a field day down in the paint. The Magic could run into trouble if Phil goes to foul Dwight whenever he's around the basket, and the Lakers have the bodies to do that, but Stan Van Gundy has been the best at adjustments in this postseason and he can find a way to have Dwight be quicker with decisions with the basketball. When Howard kicks it out, all of the Magic shooters have proved capable of hitting big shots. The Magic are lucky to have two terrific on the ball defenders in Mickael Pietrus and Courtney Lee, and if those two can give Kobe Bryant fits then the rest of the Lakers have not proven they can carry Kobe. Kobe has carried this team all postseason long, and if the Magic can make Kobe struggle then they will reap the benefits.
Key Player for the Lakers: Lamar Odom is going to be huge for the Lakers. Because the Magic play such a small lineup, he will find himself matched up with both Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis on both sides of the court throughout the game. However, his versatility at the power forward position allows the Lakers to be able to match and still be effective against the Magic's unorhodox lineup. He's been battling a back injury all postseason, but has shown flashes where he hustles, goes after loose balls and really makes it look effortless on the court. At this level and with him being a player capable of going out to guard Lewis while still also being a force on offense, Odom cannot afford to revert back to his inconsistent quiet ways. If he plays a huge series the Lakers will undoubtedly come out victorious.
Key Player for the Magic: Rafer Alston has been really hit or miss this entire postseason, as well, but when he's been on, the Magic have won. Point guards have given the Lakers trouble all postseason and Alston isn't the most talented player at his position, but is a quick and smart player at the point guard position. His shot has been really streaky and sometimes he takes ill advised chances on the offensive side of the basketball, but if can keep his head in the game and knock down open jump shots then he can be a huge difference maker for the Magic. Derek Fisher has had a hard time on defense this postseason and has struggled with his jump shot, so this is a prime opportunity for Alston to take advantage of that and thoroughly outplay Fisher. If he does that, then the Magic will have the advantage to the championship.
Prediction: Lakers in six.
Key As To Why They Will Win: Home court is huge here for Los Angeles. In the 2-3-2 format, the road team has more of an opportunity than they have at any other level of the postseason. However, although both teams have shown they're more than capable of winning big playoff games on the road, the Lakers role players play at a different level in Los Angeles. As a result, the fact that they have more home games is crucial. Kobe Bryant is going to be effective and consistent in this postseason, and having Trevor Ariza's versatility on both offense and defense this season will hide some of the holes that the team had in last season's finals with the Celtics. Dwight Howard will severely take out Pau Gasol on both sides of the court, but Odom will be able to take advantage of either Lewis or Turkoglu's struggles on the ball defensively.
Conclusion: This series is genuinely tough and could go either way. I look at both squads and I'm happy that they're both here. They're both experienced in tough situations and are the two most talented teams in the league. The Magic get the bill as underdog just because the eleminated LeBron James and are facing the star studded Lakers, but they're not some cinderella team that is running on borrowed time. Dwight Howard is going to be unstoppable in this series but his penchant for foul trouble is a reason why I went against Orlando. With him being the only sure advantage for Orlando, he's going to be in high demand all series long and needs to be effective at all times. If players drive it to the basket and get him in foul trouble, and if the Lakers continuously send him to the foul line, that's going to disrupt the Magic flow and really will take them out of this series. Orlando's had a great run, but I feel as if the intelligence has finally caught up to the talent for the Lakers and I look for them to take advantage of being here for a second straight season. I've picked them all year and I'll pick them now: the Los Angeles Lakers will be our 2009 NBA Champions.