Roundtable: NBA Finals pressure, intriguing subplots, more title talk
SI.com NBA writers analyze the storylines and matchups in this year's Finals.
1. Considering the Lakers and Magic both face some big potential free-agent losses, which team needs to take advantage of this title opportunity more?
Ian Thomsen: The pressure is entirely on the Lakers, not so much because of next year as last year. Since their clinching Game 6 blowout at Boston, they've been focused on making amends, and memories of that experience will be a positive force. By now it should be clear that Kobe Bryant thrives on this kind of pressure.
Jack McCallum: In the era of free agency, you have to be a moron to think, Oh, well, opportunity will come knocking again if we don't win it this year. Both teams realize they must win this year. But since you demanded one answer, I'm going to say the Lakers. Most of the pressure is on them. Kobe is getting impatient (notwithstanding my answer to the next question), and L.A. could conceivably implode with the current roster, even if free agency does not wreck it.
Chris Mannix: Orlando. The Magic's run to the Finals is perceived by many as a fluke. They beat an undermanned Boston team. They happened to be a matchup nightmare for Cleveland. In many ways, Orlando's incredible march has been a perfect storm of events. With Hedo Turkoglu looking at a big payday in the offseason -- and with keeping Turkoglu complicated by the $40-plus million committed to Dwight Howard, Rashard Lewis and Jameer Nelson next year -- this might be the Magic's only shot to win a title. The Lakers have offseason decisions of their own to make (namely regarding Trevor Ariza and Lamar Odom), but the core of the West's top-seeded team (Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum) will return. At 30, Bryant still has several more strong years in front of him, and you have to think the Lakers will be back. At least before the Magic.
Steve Aschburner: Sorry, I can't really get too worked up about the Lakers' pivotal free-agent decisions and how that translates into some urgency to win now. That franchise has basked in winning and, Odom-vs.-Ariza signing debates notwithstanding, it will continue to thrive given the expectations of its fan base and the advantages it has as one of the league's glamour destinations. Bryant's good for several more seasons and, thus, I don't see the Lakers falling into the sort of funk that envelopes the Knicks or sidetracked the Celtics. And if they did, you know what? It'd be their turn. I do think markets such as Orlando need to strike when they get this close. Losing Turkoglu could convulse that team and, while Howard is saying all the right things now, the league's most covetous eyes always will be upon him. Kevin Garnett said all the right things and stayed a dozen years in Minnesota, but he got his ring in Boston and the Timberwolves still are waiting.
Scott Howard-Cooper: Strictly on the topic of urgency because of potential free-agent issues, the Lakers. Their star is 30, the Magic's star is 23, and there is no getting around that. Bryant's clock is spinning faster than Howard's. That need to win now is more pressing, before the summer of roster uncertainty. That said, the Lakers would be able to absorb the loss of Odom or Ariza better than the Magic with Turkoglu. Odom and Ariza haven't been permanent starters, while Turkoglu is a critical piece of Orlando's success. And L.A. probably won't lose Odom and Ariza. One or the other, maybe, or even probably. But not both. That's an important consideration in noting free agency will not ruin them.
2. Which superstar is a better fit with his supporting cast: Dwight Howard or Kobe Bryant?
Ian Thomsen: Right now, I'd say Howard. Orlando's roster of shooters was signed entirely to complement its young big man and create space for him in the paint. But it's more than possible that a different answer will become obvious should the Lakers' deep rotation of long, skilled players make quick work of the series.
Jack McCallum: I suppose the predictable answer here is Howard, an easygoing, popular youngster who doesn't offend anyone. But by "fit" in the Finals sense, we're not talking about someone you want to go to the movies with -- we're talking about someone you want to go to war with. Clearly, that is Bryant, who has won three championships and played in 21 championship series games, three more and 21 more, respectively, than Howard.
Chris Mannix: While Kobe can fit in with any cast, the Magic have built their entire team around Howard's strength in the low post. General manager Otis Smith has made a concerted effort to load Orlando's lineup with perimeter shooters who spread the floor and allow Howard to operate alone inside. Neither Bryant nor Howard is replaceable, but the entire Magic game plan -- both offensively and defensively -- is built around Howard. His teammates' deficiencies, like defense and interior scoring, are masked by Howard, who excels at both.
Steve Aschburner: Howard fits better with the other Magic players because it truly is a symbiotic relationship. They make him better by creating space, he makes them better by pulling defenders in for cleaner perimeter shots. Defensively, they benefit from him by funneling their opponents toward the league's best shot-blocker. Take Howard off that team and it would be like pulling a string on a fine sweater. The Lakers would sag mightily without Bryant, but they wouldn't unravel quite the same. They need and allow him to play great, but they haven't built an unusual style around him to the extent that Orlando has with Howard.
Scott Howard-Cooper: Kobe, because the Lakers don't need a hot streak to win a championship the way the Magic will need one with Lewis, Turkoglu and Courtney Lee hitting from the perimeter. L.A. is much more dependable at being able to beat teams inside and out. Orlando is more of a risk as a jump-shooting team. Otis Smith has done well executing a plan of surrounding Howard with perimeter threats, but jump-shooting teams can go cold.
3. What's the most intriguing subplot of the series?
Ian Thomsen: Can Kobe win without Shaq? After all, he's going up against Shaq's heir both in Orlando as well as among NBA centers overall. A win here makes Kobe a champion in different eras, which would be an amazing achievement.
Jack McCallum: The coaches. Remember that one of Phil Jackson's primary tormentors a decade ago was Jeff Van Gundy, brother of Magic coach Stan Van Gundy, and the guy who sarcastically nicknamed the Lakers' coach "Big Chief Triangle." I have no doubt that SVG has enormous respect for Jackson's coaching abilities, but he is as feisty as his brother, and, at some key moment in the series, the old Jackson-VG rivalry is bound to surface.
Chris Mannix: Jackson's chase for a record 10th coaching title. This will be Jackson's third attempt at breaking his tie with Red Auerbach, and speculation is that it could be his last. Jackson has one year remaining on his contract, but in recent weeks he has looked and sounded like a man making his last stand. His body is failing him: Before one game against Denver, Jackson couldn't take the 3-foot step up to the dais, so he conducted the news conference standing up. The will-he-or-won't-he-return question will be asked a lot during this series.
Steve Aschburner: An important subplot is how Howard and Bryant muzzle themselves to avoid putting themselves into (or getting suckered into) real trouble with their mounting technical fouls. If one of them were to reach the playoff max of seven (each has five entering the series) and have to sit out the next Finals game, it would be fascinating to see if the refs working that night somehow judged the other superstar to have lipped off sufficiently, too. That way, they could miss the same game, theoretically handicapping each team equally. Other than that, the subplot that interests me most is seeing the Lakers earn the title, should they win it. Since I rate them the better team and picked them to win, I root for the drama of seeing them fall behind in the series so we can see them sweat and rise to a challenge. And if that is the Lakers team Orlando manages to beat for the championship, this would be a classic Finals.
Scott Howard-Cooper: I didn't originally think so, and didn't put a spotlight on him when writing about Finals storylines a few days ago, but I find it hard to get away from the Van Gundy angle. For starters, Stan Van Gundy will be visible just for being so emotional as Magic coach, letting the mood take him rather than worrying about manufacturing the proper answer or appearance. And subplots involving him? They are numerous. How Howard is utilized (an issue thanks to Howard); how Orlando defends Kobe (after the knife-juggling of giving LeBron James single coverage the previous round); how long it will take Shaq to pile on Van Gundy with an "I told you so" if the Magic lose; how TV analyst Jeff Van Gundy will critique coach Stan Van Gundy; how the Magic will handle the emotions in their first collective trip to the Finals; how SVG will do against the ultimate modern-day closer on the sideline, Phil Jackson. That's a lot of intrigue, some that will be fun, some that will help define a career.
4. What matchup is the key to the series?
Ian Thomsen: Will Howard so dominate the paint as to demand double teams that create killer threes for his teammates? Or will Bynum overcome his shaky playoffs to match up physically for extended minutes and neutralize (to some extent) the league's dominant center? The results of this matchup could make the difference between a straightforward Lakers win and an extended toss-up series.
Jack McCallum: The one at power forward between the Lakers' Gasol and the Magic's Rashard Lewis. Well, I guess Lewis is a power forward even though he spends much of his time on the perimeter. And that's the point: If he can draw Gasol out and hit consistently from long range, the Magic can win the series. But if the series becomes an interior struggle, and Gasol is on his game -- which is what I think will happen -- it's advantage, Lakers.
Chris Mannix: Odom's defense on Lewis. The Lakers have no interest in watching Lewis burn Gasol on the perimeter the same way he torched Anderson Varejao in the conference finals, so Odom will be on the floor early. His ability to contest Lewis' shots and keep the Orlando forward from big-scoring games will be critical to L.A.'s success.
Steve Aschburner: Mickael Pietrus' ability to pester and force Bryant into his second or third choices with the ball -- while staying on the court long enough, out of foul trouble, to matter, is the pivotal matchup. We've seen so many alleged "Kobe stoppers" come and go through the years -- guys who had some effectiveness, but mostly guys who talked it more than walked it -- that it's a natural point to watch. And Pietrus, foremost among the Magic, had promising success in the East finals against LeBron, as terrific a tune-up as one can get for Bryant.
Scott Howard-Cooper: Bynum vs. Howard. If Bynum does anything on Howard, so much as slows him down, the Lakers have gained a huge edge. But if Bynum becomes Howard's piñata, the Lakers have to send more help and the Magic shooters get more open looks. And on offense, Bynum has to be at least credible in hopes of sticking some fouls to Howard. Gasol would have a much better chance of that, of course, but the thinner Gasol on Howard at the other end is a bad look for L.A. The difference between Bynum showing up and loitering is greater than ever to the Lakers' hopes.
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