SI.com's Ian Thomsen spoke with an NBA advance scout to break down the Magic-Lakers Finals matchup.
1. Kobe Bryant. All of those guys who were in the Olympics last summer got a lot of good out of being part of it. Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Kobe -- they all got it, that there's more to it than just them playing great and their team coming along behind them and if their team doesn't come along, then just lambaste them. No, that's not how it's done. You need to give your teammates a little bit of credit when they deserve it or need it, and Kobe is showing improvement and maturity in that area. You can see Kobe getting genuinely excited from the bench and pulling for these guys when they're out there. You can see the camaraderie and chemistry is much better.
He's also better than ever as a playmaker. He reads defenses so well that he can be going 100 mph and still make an effective play. There's no question he's thinking to score first, but at the same time he's reading the help defense. In other words, when he's putting the ball down to go to the rim, he's saying, 'You've got to stop me, and when you do try to stop me, I'm going to make the right read' -- as opposed to the old Kobe, which was, I'm going to the basket and the only way I'm passing is if I'm flat-out stopped. He's a much more willing passer now.
At 30, he's not quite the lively athlete he used to be. I don't think he's reached the stage of Michael Jordan near the end of his time in Chicago. Let's put it this way: Let's say the younger Kobe used to rely on his athleticism to be better than anyone else 40 times a game, or 10 times a period. Now that he's older, he might be able to do that two times a period. LeBron James, as a current example, might be able to go high to block that shot, and he's so young and athletic that he can then turn around and make a similar athletic play at the offensive end. Kobe, though, might make the athletic play at one end of the floor but he's not going to be able to turn around and instantly make another sensational play. Instead, he's going to need a few possessions to get that bounce back. Michael, year by year, learned to play that way, to pick his battles and his moments of grandeur. He could still do things you didn't see anybody else doing, but he wasn't able to do them over and over again every time down the floor. That's where Kobe is now.
I love Kobe; he's a flat-out warrior and one of the most fierce competitors in the team concept I've ever seen. When he says winning the championship means so much more to him than winning the MVP, I truly, truly believe him. There's not even a question in my mind that he really means it.
2. Pau Gasol. Not the most physical player, obviously, but is he soft? Absolutely not. No way. He is going to beat you with finesse before he beats you with brute strength. But he's not a softie.
He is a very good teammate who wants to take big shots. He won't make all of them but he'll make his share. He's not a good defensive player but he's trying much more, and he's a smart player with a very high basketball IQ. When he speaks -- like when he said they needed to get the ball inside more -- he makes a lot of good sense. He's a guy you can play in the low post, and if he's playing one-on-one, he can go score. As a coach, you can be very happy with that opportunity. If the other team is trying to be physical down there with him, he can go to the high post, and you can play through him there because he's an extremely willing and accurate passer for a big man.
Gasol became a reliable star for the Lakers this year. Last year, I think Kobe didn't believe in the guy yet, but now with Kobe playing with more maturity and Gasol being there a full year and proving himself, it has made a huge difference.
Are they better with Gasol at power forward or center? There are pluses and minuses each way. As a center, he can go out high and pull Dwight Howard away from the basket some. At power forward, he can post up Rashard Lewis and really go to work there, command the double team and be effective exploiting it. I like him most at power forward and making Orlando have to adjust to him.
3. Andrew Bynum. Is Bynum going to be able to stay on the court and guard Howard so that Howard doesn't command a double team? If that can be done -- similar to the way Boston's Kendrick Perkins guarded Howard in the second round -- with Howard being held to 18-to-20 points while going one-on-one, then it's going to be very tough for Orlando to win.
You know Orlando is going to go right at Bynum and try to get him in foul trouble early. That's a problem for the Lakers. It would be helpful if PhilJackson could play Bynum one-on-one against Howard for an extended section of each quarter without getting into foul trouble, but I don't know if Bynum is smart enough to do that yet.
The key for Bynum will be to do his work early, to use his size and lower-body strength to keep Howard from getting to his sweet spots. Once Howard is where he wants to be and he's making his moves, you've just got to whack him. You'd rather see him possibly struggling at the foul line than dunking on you.
At the other end, he can make Howard work defensively because Bynum is pretty clever, and Howard has had issues with foul trouble himself. Bynum has good footwork and he's getting better. When he tries to go outside the paint, that's when he screws up the triangle and all of the spacing with the other players.
1. Dwight Howard. He's realizing this is the big stage and he can be a dominant player if he takes that attitude. After people had been waiting to see if he could control the game offensively in the post, that last 40-point game [in the East finals] was a coming-out party for him. But if you're asking if he can dominate this series, I think that's asking too much. I don't think Orlando is going to come in with one player and beat the home-court advantage of the Lakers. I just don't see that happening through one guy. But the Magic have so much talent around Howard anyway that they they shouldn't be thinking in those terms.
As a defender, Howard is terrific for the way Orlando has to play the ball. They keep pressure on the ball and force it to the basket, knowing that their defenders around Howard aren't going to be able to stay in front of their men the whole way. So, at some point, Howard turns into a goalie. It works well when all five are set in their defense and matched up. Obviously, he is a great shot-blocker and intimidator, but the way L.A. spaces out the defense, it's not going to be easy to funnel everything in to Howard. I don't think he's going to be the factor he was in the games against Cleveland.
You can get Howard in foul trouble by playing to his aggression. He plays so hard that it's easy for him to get off balance, and with ball fakes you can get him off his feet. Once that happens, guys know how to take advantage by bringing the ball right through his chest and making it look like a foul. You don't want to tell him to not be aggressive, but it has to be channeled and he has to be smarter.
The Magic are a good rebounding team because of him, so it's going to be interesting to see if the Lakers will be running stuff through the high post that gets Howard away from the basket -- and if they do, will Howard still be able to control the defensive boards? The guy is awesome; he's the strongest guy in the league as well as the quickest big man.
2. Rashard Lewis. He would be a great power forward in the Lakers' system because of his skills and his shooting. But the bottom line with him is that he can't guard the small forwards, so he has to guard the power forwards. Then again, I don't think Turkoglu can guard the small forwards, either.
I have a ton of respect for Lewis as a guy who is a great teammate. Since coming to Orlando, he has continued to play hard and continued to be a scorer along with developing a mature understanding that he's the No. 2 guy on the team, maybe No. 3 at times behind Turkoglu, and maybe even No. 4 when Jameer Nelson is there. Now you could say he should accept his role because he's making a ton of money, but we all know it doesn't always work that way. At times he'll come up with 30 points, but most times he'll give you 18. He lets the game come to him very well, and at the same time he's not going to shy away from taking the big shots.
I'd like to see him be a 20-and-10 contributor on a constant basis, so it's clear that he's outproducing the winner of the Lamar Odom-Ariza combination -- and then Turkoglu will have to try to equalize the production of Gasol.
3. Hedo Turkoglu. His versatility is crucial, especially now that Nelson has been out and they never can be sure what they're going to get from Rafer Alston. Turkoglu kills you in the pick-and-roll. Imagine if Paul Pierce were good in the pick-and-roll with the ball in his hands and he could create plays out of it -- that's what Turkoglu does so well.
Turkoglu is going to have Ariza on him, and Ariza will be trying to fight over the screens and "show" on the pick-and-roll. The Lakers will try to use Ariza to put pressure on Turkoglu and guard him straight up. Can Ariza stay in front of Turkoglu on the pick-and-roll? I think he can. And then I'd think the Lakers would be happy if he tried to take Ariza into the post because I don't think Turkoglu is so great there.
The issues with Turkoglu are his defense and his streakiness as a shooter. But then this is a streaky team, and a lot is going to depend on how they're shooting it.
Trevor Ariza, Lakers. He's a key role player: If he can keep Turkoglu from having exceptional games, it's going to be very difficult for Orlando to win. Ariza has been a great find, a perfect example of a very good athlete who has some basketball skills and stays within those skills so he doesn't become a liability. He defends and runs the floor well, and in their offense he's good at cutting in space and also hitting the timely three. He's a big upgrade over last year, when they were starting Vladimir Radmanovic at small forward.
Derek Fisher, Lakers. Is he going to give the Lakers the advantage at the point? I think he can because of his experience. He's not as good as he was, and at times he looks tired after the long season. That being said, this is the Finals, and his minutes have been cut back quite a bit, so I can imagine him coming back around to be a positive factor. Obviously, the big thing for him is hitting open threes, because if the Magic start playing off him and he doesn't punish them, that makes everything more difficult for the Lakers.
Courtney Lee, Magic. An excellent find as a rookie, he's willing to accept his role. A quiet leader and absolutely a competitor, he has all of those things you love. He takes pride in his defense, and at the same time, he's not a liability at the other end, so it's not like you're playing four-on-five when he's out there. Everything changes for him in this series because he has to guard Kobe. But no one on that team is going to be charged with trying to guard Kobe one-on-one. There's going to be a lot of help.
Rafer Alston, Magic. I just don't trust him with the ball. Some days he's great and cagey, but as a coach trying to guess what you're going to get with him each night -- that's a tough thing to say about your point guard. He would be one of my biggest questions about Orlando, and the series might swing based on what he does. Having Turkoglu out there with him takes pressure off Alston to make plays, but he still has to make threes or, at least, score consistently, because the Lakers are going to leave him open and he has to punish them for it.
Lakers. Lamar Odom is a key guy. If he becomes dominant and consistent, then the Lakers will be very tough to beat. He can do so many different things, but he's also an example of what's wrong with the Lakers. As good and experienced as they are, they still have some question marks, and he's one of them. If Odom continues to be up and down, that will obviously help Orlando. I can remember him in AAU, and though he was a terrific player, even then I felt like he really didn't understand how good he was or how dominant he could be. ... Sasha Vujacic has not been making shots consistently, but making up for that has been Shannon Brown. He was a throw-in in that midseason trade for Adam Morrison, but the guy can really score, and he has the guts to take big shots. They can't afford to double off him, which is a big advantage to the Lakers bringing him off the bench. Defensively, he can shut down J.J. Redick, and at times, he could help take care of Alston. ... Jordan Farmar has been inconsistent this year, but I actually like him more than I did a year ago. I think he's realizing his role as the point guard and not taking as many of the wild shots that hurt the team. ... Luke Walton? He doesn't hurt you, but I don't know that he does a lot to help you, either.
Magic. The thing that surprised me about Mickael Pietrus was how well he was defending at times against LeBron. Pietrus was taking some pride in that, which was something I hadn't seen from him before. He had been known as a good scorer but a selfish scorer, a guy who took a lot of bad shots and didn't give the ball up when he should. But he has also had times in his career where he has been very effective as well, and he's a great athlete, ... Anthony Johnson is a good guy to have, a reliable older guy backing up the point for the few minutes they'll play him. ... For three or four minutes at a time, Marcin Gortat is good to have on the floor because he can create havoc as a center in short stretches with his physical play, and he can even finish a little bit. But if he's on the floor for six-minutes straight, it's time to get him out of there because now he's starting to hurt you. That's why if Howard gets in foul trouble, and you're going to have to rely on Gortat, you're going to have the feeling that something bad is going to happen.
Stan Van Gundy is a hell of a coach, and he's an emotional coach, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's not like he has an agenda with certain players -- he's just out there coaching his brains out. He gets so caught up in the game and so emotional that if he says the wrong thing and reacts the wrong way toward his own players, that wouldn't surprise me. He wears it on his sleeve, and that could embarrass someone and it could be an issue. His emotion could be good or it could be bad.
Phil Jackson is on the other end of the spectrum. He isn't going to embarrass his players in that sense; he's going to tend to be more calm than anything. His enormous experience in these situations is going to be an advantage for the Lakers.
• There's no one on Orlando who can guard Kobe one-on-one. They're going to have load to the ball, which means that Fisher and Ariza are going to have to hit the open three. When Gasol's man comes off him to help defend Kobe's drives, Gasol has to go to the boards and get some put-backs.
• When Gasol is being played straight up, one-on-one, Lewis will have problems matching up with him away from the basket.
• I'm going to be interested to see who is commanding the double team, primarily in the post. What is going to be Jackson's approach defensively to dealing with Howard? Is he going to play him straight up and try to get away with it?
• In the Denver series, I was really impressed with Jackson defensively and the way his defense loaded to the ball and took away the penetrations of Carmelo Anthony. It was really a zone defense they were playing, and they were playing big when Denver was going small. Even in those situations, Jackson was able to keep Bynum and Gasol on the floor together by playing a lot of zone on the weak side. I think they're going to be able to do the same things in this series because that kind of defense will work when Orlando tries to drive or penetrate inside and kick it out to the shooters. Basically, Orlando is going to try to go with four perimeter players around Howard in the middle, and because of their experiences against Denver and the way Denver plays, the Lakers will be well prepared for it.
• Another question is whether Orlando can take the scheme they used against LeBron -- letting him score and shutting down his teammates -- and simply apply the same thing against Kobe. And the answer to that is no. The Lakers have too many legitimate role players around Kobe. When the lights turned bright, the Cavaliers showed that their guys were lacking, but the Lakers have more scoring, and so the Magic will have to make more defensive adjustments to account for them.
• The key element in the series is which team can stay home the most on defense and avoid having to double.
• Another important aspect is going to be whether Orlando can shoot well from the three-point line. This series could be closer than people think because of Orlando's shooters. If they're hitting their threes, it could become a great series. But if they aren't ...
• While Orlando got here by winning close games in the final minute, I think Kobe is going to have the last word in those situations. If it's a close game, I like the Lakers, because that's when Kobe is the best.
Lakers in six.