“It’s only one game.”
The announcers said it early and often after Game 1 of the NBA finals, a 100-75 thumping by the favored Los Angeles Lakers over the Orlando Magic. The analysts said it after the game, and for all I know the prehistoric monsters in those ubiquitous promos for the Will Ferrell movie, Land of the Lost, were saying it, too. Of course, anyone associated with ESPN/ABC had good reason to say it. If a casual fan were to tune in hoping for a bellwether on the series and saw a 25-point rout, he or she might be tempted to do something else on Sunday.
Nevertheless, it is true; it’s only one game. Game 1 of the NBA finals is often a blowout. Nine times in the last 10 years, the home team (i.e. the higher seed) has won Game 1 of the finals, and in 7 out of those 9 wins, the margin of victory was in double digits. The only two nominally close games, the San Antonio Spurs’ 85-76 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2007 and the Lakers’ 99-94 win over the New Jersey Nets in 2002, were the start of the four-game sweeps. Even the extreme 25-point margin of victory should offer little reassurance. As Magic Johnson pointed out, his Lakers were pounded by 34 in the game often known as the Memorial Day Massacre against the Boston Celtics in 1985. Yet the Lakers rebounded to win Game 2 and the series. The last team to lose Game 1 of the finals by a margin this extreme was the 1992 Portland Trail Blazers, who lost their opener to the Chicago Bulls, 122-89. The Blazers came back and won Game 2 115-104.
All that said it’s still much better to be only three wins from a championship parade than four. And if Orlando doesn’t make substantial adjustments for Sunday night’s contest, they will be down 2-0 heading back to Florida for Game 3 on Tuesday.
Most of the time, a basketball game is won in the lane, the painted area near the rim.
Early in the second quarter when the Magic led 33-28, the Lakers were getting most of their shots in and dominating the rebounds. In the end, the Lakers scored 56 points in the paint to Orlando’s 22 and outrebounded the Magic by 55-41. Kobe Bryant had a stellar night with 40 points, eight rebounds and eight assists. Sixteen of his 28 shot attempts came from the free throw circle or closer.
That’s not supposed to happen to a team that has as its center Dwight Howard, the NBA Defensive Player of the Year and a ferocious rebounder and shot blocker. However, the Lakers used their smaller lineup, with forward Lamar Odom in for center Andrew Bynum to great effect, matching Howard against Pau Gasol who has a good mid-range jump shot. Gasol drew Howard away from the rim, and the Lakers capitalized on the lack of intimidation elsewhere on the Magic’s five. There were things that the Magic did well. They kept the Lakers from killing them at the free throw line, and they didn’t turn the ball over, thus limiting the Lakers’ fast break, but they will have to retake the paint to have a chance in Game 2.
After the game, Howard and Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy emphasized the team’s lack of effort, and while it’s a cliché, there’s a lot of truth to that. The Magic win games with their defensive intensity; in the playoffs, they’ve held teams to a rate of 101 points per 100 possessions. On Thursday night, L.A. torched them at a rate of 111.
When Orlando had the ball, the Lakers ran at Howard, who scored 40 points against the Cavaliers Saturday in the closeout game of the conference finals, with a variety of double teams, limiting him to only six shots, one made basket and a meager 12 points. Usually teams that employ this strategy get burned by the Magic’s long-distance sharpshooters, but not on Thursday. Rashard Lewis, Hedo Turkoglu, Courtney Lee, Mikael Pietrus and Rafer Alston combined to shoot 15-43. While some of the credit goes to the Lakers’ aggressive interior defense, even L.A. coach Phil Jackson said “some things just didn’t go their [Orlando’s] way.”
The numbers bear out Jackson’s remarks. On Thursday night, the Magic scored at a rate of 85.4 points per 100 possessions. They have scored at a rate of 106.5 per 100 possessions in the post-season. The Lakers’ defense usually allows only 101 per 100 in the playoffs. In other words, even the most optimistic L.A. fan shouldn’t expect all of the Magic’s struggles to continue.
Losing Game 1 isn’t a death sentence, but for Orlando, losing Game 2 might be. Two of the last four teams to lose Game 1 came back to either win or make their series close and competitive. But only one team in the last 31 years has lost the first two games and come back to win the series. Despite the urgency for Orlando, Jackson said “the team whose coaching staff has to make adjustments has the advantage,” then he left the podium looking as if he really didn’t mind this particular disadvantage. Game 1 was only one game, but there aren’t many more left to play.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.