by Phil Kehres
After over a month of some of the most memorable playoff action ever seen, the National Basketball Association (NBA) Finals are here. This year’s matchup pits repeat Western Conference champions the Los Angeles Lakers against the upstart Orlando Magic, who are making their first appearance in the Finals since the 1994-95 season. Despite having unceremoniously dispatched the league’s best team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Magic will enter these Finals as decided underdogs, and for good reason.
The Lakers took care of business against the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals, knocking out star forward Carmelo Anthony and crew in six games despite losing a game at home. The Lakers looked lackadaisical at times, but Kobe Bryant carried them to a dominating Game 6 win and guaranteed L.A. some extra rest before the Finals. This was, for the most part, expected. What took many people by surprise, however, was the Orlando Magic’s decisive 4-2 series win over the previously dominant Cleveland Cavaliers.
Orlando came to Cleveland, where the Cavs had gone 39-2 over the regular season and 4-0 in the playoffs to that point and stunned them with a one point victory in Game One. That set the tone for the rest of the series, which was about as tight and memorable as a six-game series could be, save for Orlando’s blowout victory in Game Six. Game Two saw one of the most dramatic shots in NBA history as LeBron James beat the buzzer to give the Cavs the one-point victory. For the most part, though, Orlando simply outplayed the Cavaliers the rest of the series. The Cavs, despite leading the league with 66 wins in the regular season and possessing both the league MVP in LeBron James and Coach of the Year Mike Brown, just matched up poorly with Orlando. In fact, if you were to construct a fantasy team with the sole purpose of beating the 2008-2009 Cleveland Cavaliers, it would be the 2008-2009 Orlando Magic. Cleveland had no answer for Orlando’s dominant center Dwight “Superman” Howard, who spent most of his time dunking and the rest of it whining about foul calls. Orlando was also remarkably hot from the three-point line, the team’s trademark. Cleveland's smaller guards couldn’t contain Orlando’s big, athletic shooters — and even Orlando’s decidedly mediocre role players played like stars while Cleveland’s bench fizzled. This is not to take anything away from Orlando, which played inspired basketball and certainly deserved to win the series. The Lakers, however, are a deeper and more balanced team than Cleveland.
L.A. boasts myriad athletic big men like center Pau Gasol and forwards Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum who will match up better with Howard and Orlando’s forwards Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis. And that Kobe Bryant guy is no slouch either (though he remains the second best player in the world).
I’m not one for predictions usually, but I don’t see this going more than six games, in the Lakers’ favor. L.A. is just too deep and too experienced, and Orlando’s hot shooting has to cool off eventually. “Superman” and his crew will have to wait another year for a chance at a ring — but next year, they’ll have to go through an even hungrier, angrier and battle-tested LeBron James to get there.
(Phil Kehres also is the co-author of Excuse Me, Is This Your Blog? He also contributes to Fear the Sword, a blog about the Cleveland Cavaliers of the Sports Blog Nation.)
(The NBA Finals begin tomorrow, Thursday, June 4. To see the schedule of NBA Finals games on ABC, please go here. To see a highlight reel of Kobe Bryant's best plays of the 2008-2009 season, please check below.)
Los Angeles Lakers
National Basketball Assocition
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by Phil Kehres