June 04, 2009
SI.com's NBA Finals Picks
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I worry that I may never learn from mistakes, having picked against Orlando the previous round. But the Lakers have more firepower around Kobe Bryant than the Cavaliers had around LeBron James; more versatility, including a stronger post presence in Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum; and in Bynum a young defender big enough to bother Dwight Howard in his set-ups around the basket. On the other hand, the Magic have a legit shooter's chance of winning -- more so than most Finals underdogs in previous years -- and they could yet make fools of me and others again.
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The Magic will not go quietly. But go Orlando will. With a combination of Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom (not to mention a hacking cameo by D.J. Mbenga), there will be enough fouls to send Dwight Howard to the line instead of letting him dunk with impunity. And there are enough aggressive perimeter defenders with Kobe, Derek Fisher, Trevor Ariza, Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown to limit -- not stop but limit -- the three-point game that the Magic used to beat Cleveland.
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Lamar Odom on Rashard Lewis. Trevor Ariza on Hedo Turkoglu. Kobe on anyone. The Lakers may be potent on offense, but the reason they will raise their 15th championship banner is defense. Lewis and Turkoglu were able to exploit the traditional lineups of Boston and Cleveland in earlier rounds, but the Lakers have the personnel to play a non-traditional style. Shots will be contested, gaps will quickly close. The rangy Ariza has the length to defend either Lewis or Turkoglu, and in the fourth quarter Phil Jackson has the option of siccing Bryant on either of them. The Magic will still have one dominant game -- their perimeter skills and the Lakers' tendency to lose focus will see to that -- but L.A. will have more of them.
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Years from now, people will look back and peg this series as the beginning of the Sasha Vujacic era in the NBA. No, who are we kidding? It's going to be all Kobe, all the time in these Finals. Some will consider it boring, but then some railed against Jordan during his elite years as well. Early in the series, Bryant will continue in the facilitator role that made him (and the Lakers) so effective in Games 5 and 6 against the Nuggets. When the Magic adjust and single-cover him, he'll turn back into a scorer. Dwight Howard will put up big numbers but find the middle more congested than against Cleveland.
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Three reasons why the Lakers will beat the Magic: 1) The experience of having been there last June means something, especially against an opponent that has exceeded its ambitions and hasn't played at these heights before; 2) Kobe Bryant, no matter what he says, is driven just a little extra by the prospect of pulling even with Shaquille O'Neal with four championships (though it won't shut Shaq up -- nothing ever does that -- and I say "even" because Bryant's teammates collectively make up for none of them being quite the equal of O'Neal sidekick Dwyane Wade in 2006); and 3) the Lakers are more talented, equally deep and fully awake now after dilly-dallying earlier in the playoffs. Orlando has climbed the ladder in competition from Philadelphia without Elton Brand to Boston without Kevin Garnett to Cleveland without much help for LeBron to a fully functioning, fully engaged Lakers squad. That's a rung too far.
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This is not nearly the consolation-prize matchup most suggest. The Magic have Dwight Howard as the best center in the game, which just happens to be a major Lakers question mark with the enigmatic Andrew Bynum. An L.A. concern ordinarily is now bigger than ever. Play Pau Gasol there instead and Howard powers through Gasol. But the Lakers are in good shape defending the perimeter. Lamar Odom is long and can chase. Kobe and Trevor Ariza, the two best Lakers defenders, are both wings. Combined, that's enough to nullify much of what has gone right for Orlando. The Western Conference champions have a much better chance to hit the Magic from varied points -- Bryant, Gasol, Odom. Too much offense, too much defense for the Lakers.
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Forget about the Magic's 2-0 record against the Lakers in the regular season; the last time they played each other, George W. Bush was still in office and Jameer Nelson was fully healthy. These are different teams now. I don't see the Magic's success against Boston and Cleveland carrying over against Los Angeles, which actually has low-post scorers in Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum (if he wakes up) who will challenge Dwight Howard on both ends of the floor. The Lakers also have wing defenders such as Trevor Ariza, who won't let Hedo Turkoglu and other Magic players get so many open shots from the perimeter. The difference in stopping LeBron and the Cavaliers as opposed to Kobe and the Lakers is that Bryant has showed in these playoffs that, unlike James, he doesn't need to score 40 points or post a triple-double for the Lakers to win. When Bryant passes to Gasol, Odom or Ariza, they can score and aren't necessarily looking to pass it back to their star player as Cleveland was.

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