Funny thing that happened on the way to the "inevitable" showdown between the Lakers and Cavs, a party crasher led by Dwight Howard muscled his way through, ruining ABC's and David Stern's collective wet dream, Kobe's excuse for losing and LeBron's reputation (maybe a little overboard compared to other instances of poor sportsmanship). Now we have a matchup between the Lakers and the Orlando Magic that if asked back when the playoffs began, would be the last one involving the top 5 in the league that would have been guessed.
Now we are set up with a very interesting series where we have a lot of people with something to prove. I decided against the matchup approach like I did in the Stanley Cup Finals because it's more interesting to use a cast of characters that this series will have because this is precisely what this series has.
The College Stars-turned-Club Trillionaires
Back in 2006, the top two college players based on the Player of the Year award voting were J.J. Redick and Adam Morrison. Now, thankfully these two great rivals will face off against each other in a battle on who can do the better job jumping up and down, high-fiving and all-in-all encouraging teammates. Redick actually received significant playing time during the Celtics series but was so awful when on the floor that I don't remember him playing since Game 5 of that series (in a related story, the Magic have played infinitely better since then). Morrison's already been successful because of his role as the second man in the Vlad Radmanovic-Shannon Brown trade. Now if we only can have a scene like this in the finals.
The NBA Finals usually have someone from France playing a key role. Playing the part this year is Mickael Pietrus, as well as the role of Kobe-stopper. Now there is no such thing as a real Kobe-stopper, but Pietrus will have to do his best to make Kobe work as hard as LeBron did last series. To do that, Pietrus has a secret weapon, the ditching of his Kobe shoes.
The Floor General(s)
The Lakers have an obvious issue at PG as Derek Fisher has looked old this postseason and Jordan Farmar has been very ordinary. That leaves Shannon Brown who came to LA as a piece that was needed to get rid of Vlad-Rad's salary, but has turned into an effective backup to Fisher who can provide energy off the bench (as evident in Game 5 against Denver). As for Orlando, it is Rafer Alston's job, but now Jameer Nelson has a chance to play, a proposition that the Magic players are fully behind. Nelson would take minutes away from Anthony Johnson, who somehow is still in the league. He was the difference making in the two Magic victories in the regular season, but since Nelson can't possibly match that success, Alston must win the PG matchup and win it convincingly if Orlando's going to win.
Tiger Woods grew up in California as a Laker fan. He currently represents Orlando's lone celebrity fan, going to games since he lives nearby. He has wrote in his monthly newsletter that he's "torn" about who to root for. Unlike Bill Cowher, who flagrantly abandoned the team he rooted for in the most public and gimmicky of ways, Tiger is straddling the fences and both fan bases will be angered, especially Laker fans since they take everything personal.
You'd think Lamar Odom lands here, but I saved this one for Andrew Bynum for his role on the Lakers playoff run. That role has been the hole in the middle, as he has done nothing in these playoffs. This is a guy who's absence in last year's Finals was considered the main reason that the Lakers didn't beat the Celtics. Now, his role is reduced to trying to divert the attention of Dwight Howard and to use up his six fouls on him. Basically, Bynum must go from no-show to part-time-show.
Both Phil Jackson and Stan Van Gundy have been considered masters at some point. Everyone refers to Phil as a Master of Zen, while Shaq has refered to Van Gundy as a Master of Panic. Until Game 6 of the Celtics series, that was true (who else would give J.J Redick 4th quarter minutes). Then, all of a sudden, he found the right matchups, played Pietrus and kept playing him and now Dwight Howard has been rendered silent and a season that was about to be washed up and a job that could have been hot next year is alive and Van Gundy has play a major reason why. Now, Phil Jackson is still Phil Jackson, but he isn't the Phil from 92 or 98 or even 03. Doc Rivers outcoached him last year and Van Gundy is no worse than Doc. This is surprisingly even.
The Money Men
This is the role for Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu not only because of their ability to make clutch shots as they have done in the first three rounds. They get this role also for their respective contracts. Lewis is in the second year of a six-year, $110 million deal that has been deemed as one of the worst contracts in NBA history. This playoff run, however, has now made Lewis at the very least slightly overpaid, not extremely overpaid and unmovable. As for Turkoglu, he is a free agent after the series and is trying to put the finishing touches to one of the better contract playoff runs in history, along with Tyronn Lue and Jerome James, though he actually plays well. Both men will have to maintain their performance in this series if the Magic are to win.
The Former Player
In November 2007, Trevor Ariza was traded by the Magic to the Lakers for Brian Cook and Maurice Evans. Both men have did nothing for the Magic (though Cook was moved for Skip to my Lou) while Ariza has become a starter for the Lakers (and reaching the potential he should have reached with the Knicks and yes I'm bitter enough to use parenthesis twice in a sentence). For awhile, Ariza was more energy guy, but this postseason, he started hitting the open 3's that are left for everyone because of Kobe. He needs to be able to keep the Magic honest when they guard him and to maintain the defensive intensity that a couple certain stars have.
The Men of the Middle
Both Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol are going to get their stats. Howard will score 20 points and get 10-15 rebounds a game. Gasol will scored at least 17 a game with at least 8 rebounds. Gasol won't be responsible for Howard because Howard would dominate on offense, but I think we will see Howard defend Gasol whenever possible and that will prove to be the second most important scenario when the Lakers have the ball. If Gasol can be frustrated in anyway, this will make this guy's just a lot harder.
This series means everything to Kobe Bryant. His place in history is on the line and it can go two different ways. Win this series and dominate, Kobe can make a claim as a top-5 all-time player, though I would still have Jordan, Magic, Russell, Bird, Kareem and Shaq ahead, with Wilt, West, Baylor, Oscar, Duncan and Olajuwon along side him. If the Lakers lose this series, then Kobe will remain behind all the players I mentioned because he would have lost three NBA Finals as the best player in the series, something that's out of the ordinary in the NBA. Add that the three titles he won were during Shaq's years as the alpha dog and Kobe was the second banana and Kobe has plenty of incentive to win. As far as his play will go, Kobe will do everything in his power to win the title. However, Kobe isn't the difference maker in determining a Laker victory; that honor goes to...
Lamar Odom. He is the one that will be the difference between a Laker championship and a Laker choke job. He will have to give up the sweets for a couple weeks in order to avoid having any kind of down games. And seriously, how can you let candy and stuff like that affect how you play, according to this doctor. Odom, like Turkoglu, is in a contract year; unlike Hedo, he hasn't played for his next contract. He even hurt himself on the open market by stating he only wants to play where there's a beach, leaving the Clippers, Heat and Lakers. When Odom is on his game, he causes all sorts of matchup problems for Orlando. He can guard Lewis and leave Gasol on Howard (where Gasol has a better chance than on Lewis), he's too big for anyone except Howard (which wouldn't matter if Pau's on the floor), he has a natural ability to rebound that when he plays well, you can see. Odom can't afford to take games off if the Lakers are to win this series, especially Games 3-5 in Orlando.
Both teams can win this series; it's not lopsided at all so the Lakers won't be winning in 4 or 5. The gameplan for the Magic is simple: Have Pietrus try to make Kobe earn his 30 a game, Alston must win the matchup against Fisher, the three's must keep falling and Howard must stay out of foul trouble and make life difficult for Pau. The Lakers have more to worry about than the gameplan; this is the stated goal and everyone must play hard and they can't afford to take a chance and give up one of these home games. Odom must show up nightly and perform and cause headaches for the Magic, not the Lakers. If the Lakers are hitting open 3's, they will win, but I can't count on that. Everyone's picking the Lakers and once again, no one's picking the Magic. However, I am. Magic in 6.