The NBA Finals begin Thursday night in Los Angeles and that fact alone should tell you that there was an upset in the Eastern Conference Finals.
A funny thing happened to Cleveland on the way to the much anticipated and eagerly awaited Finals matchups of LeBron James and the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant. Another unheralded superstar Dwight Howard led the Orlando Magic to an upset in only six games.
Thus the talking heads will now try to convince us that Kobe versus Dwight is as attractive as Kobe versus LeBron would have been. It’s doubtful many people will fall for that hype. And the TV ratings are likely to be much lower for Lakers/Magic than they would have been for Lakers/Cavs.
But that’s certainly not to say that this season’s Magic-Lakers NBA Finals won’t be compelling.
Indeed, this matchup is most compelling on several fronts, not the least of which is how these teams fared in the regular season. Clearly the Lakers are favored to win the NBA Title, ranging between a 5-2 to 3-1 favorite at sports books that have posted series odds.
But whereas the Lakers won both regular season meetings from Cleveland, they lost both meetings with Orlando.
Back on Dec. 20 in Orlando, the Magic upset the Lakers 106-103 as 3½-point underdogs. Nearly a month later in Los Angeles, the Magic were again underdogs and won 109-103.
Both teams were at full strength and the games unfolded in similar fashion. The Lakers built up halftime leads only to see Orlando rally back in the second half of each contest to win. In both games the Lakers outscored the Magic in the first and second quarters only to be outscored in the third and fourth quarters.
In their first meeting the Lakers led 58-49 at halftime but were outscored 57-45 after recess. In the second meeting, in Los Angeles, the Lakers were ahead at the half 52-44 but saw Orlando win the second half 65-51.
Since their last meeting the Magic lost guard Jameer Nelson to injury. But Orlando got veteran Rafer Alston in a trade and the sharp shooting guard has filled in well, complimenting what was already an outstanding three point shooting team.
Howard gives the Magic a presence in the paint so the inside/outside game of Orlando is well suited to making things tough on the Lakers, who lost last season to the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals.
There were reports on Sunday that Nelson might actually return for the Magic to play in the Finals but that is speculative at best. And his impact might be very limited if he does play.
All of this regular season analysis is nice but these are not just the playoffs but the NBA Finals. The long season comes to an end following this series and we should expect both Orlando’s and Los Angeles’ best efforts over the next two weeks.
Unlike previous playoff series, the NBA Finals use a 2-3-2 format. The first two games are in Los Angeles with the next three in Orlando if the series does not result in a four game sweep. A Game 6 or 7 would be in Los Angeles. It’s very possible for Orlando to enjoy a significant home edge if are able to win the first two games out west or come away with a split.
Speaking of significant that’s the word best used to describe the Lakers’ overall edge in terms of experience, largely held by coach Phil Jackson and Bryant.
Jackson’s nine titles (tying him with Boston’s Red Auerbach for most all time) and Kobe’s trio indicate the Lakers may be better able to make the right decisions at critical moments of games as opposed to Orlando coach Stan van Gundy or Magic star Dwight Howard.
That experience edge certainly accounts for something and partially explains why the Lakers are heavily favored. Orlando’s only previous fling in the NBA Finals came in 1995 when swept by Houston during the two season hiatus of Chicago’s Michael Jordan that gave the Rockets their second of back-to-back titles.
While it would be tempting to pick Orlando to defeat the Lakers and win the 2009 NBA Title there are sufficient concerns about how the Magic have played at times during these playoffs. The Magic found themselves behind by significant double digits on more than one occasion against Cleveland. The Lakers also had their moments, but not nearly as many concerns compared to the Magic.
I see the Lakers wrapping up the series back home. It would not be a stretch for Orlando to win 1 of 2 in LA and then for the Lakers to win 2 of 3 in Orlando. It would also not surprise me if Orlando has the better point spread record when the series is done.
Orlando has won 7 of 9 at home during the playoffs, covering six times including the last four. The Lakers have won 8 of 10 home playoff games, but covered in only 5. Interestingly, the last five Lakers home playoff games (and 7 of 8) have stayed under the total.
• Magic as a 6-point underdog in Game 1.
• Magic in Game 2 if losing the opener straight up (regardless of the point spread outcome).
• Lakers -8 or less in Game 2 if Magic win the opener.
• Lakers in Game 3 if tied 1-1 or down 0-2.
• Magic in Game 3 if down 0-2, even as a slight home favorite.
Series forecast: LAKERS in 6.
In next week’s column the series shall be reevaluated.
Question? Comment? E-mail me at: Andy Iskoe