Before we delve into the very closely matched NBA finals, which start Thursday, let me offer a parallel to the LeBron James situation. The superb year and frustrating end that he and his Cleveland Cavaliers experienced are very similar to the middle phase of the career of one the NBA’s all-time greats, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
In the late ‘70s, after he was traded from the Milwaukee Bucks to the Los Angeles Lakers, Abdul-Jabbar went through several seasons where he was either league MVP or one of the runners-up; he played inspired basketball to lead the Lakers in long but unsuccessful playoff runs. Then Magic Johnson arrived in 1979, and a historic run ensued. I don’t know if James will get a Hall of Fame teammate in 2010, but to win a title, he will need better teammates than he has now.
But back to L.A. and Orlando. This could be the best NBA finals in a long, long time. The Orlando Magic and the L.A. Lakers are more evenly matched than their public profiles suggest. There has been only one seven-game NBA finals in the last 14 years; we’re overdue for a winner-take-all game between some of the greatest athletes on the planet.
Is Orlando really that good? This is, after all, a Magic team that struggled to close out an injury-depleted Boston team in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Magic have several key metrics that suggest they could win it all. They were the best defensive team when measured by efficiency rating; the Magic allowed only 101.9 points per 100 possessions this season. In the NBA finals, 11 of the last 14 winners were the teams with the higher defensive efficiency rating. The Lakers offense struggles when Kobe Bryant is kept off of the free throw line, which was the Houston Rockets strategy in the second round, and the Magic are well-situated to duplicate that.
It wasn’t just that the Rockets kept Kobe off the line; they kept everyone off the line, allowing only 19.2 freebies per 100 shots, second-best in the league. Orlando was fourth in the league at 20.9. I’m reluctant to read too much into head-to-head matchups from the regular season because of the small sample size, but it looks like Orlando figured something out while playing the Lakers in the regular season. In their first game, a 106-103 Magic win in Orlando back in December, Bryant scored 41 points including 11 free throws. One month later in L.A., the Magic held Bryant to 10-26 shooting and only seven free throws. Orlando won 109-103 (despite Kobe’s triple-double). The Magic won the regular-season series, and every team so far in the playoffs to win the season series has won the playoff series, too.
However, these two games are a great data point for my reluctance. In both Magic wins, point guard Jameer Nelson had outstanding games, 27 points and five assists in the first matchup and 28 points and eight dimes in the second. Nelson has been out of action since late January with a shoulder injury. Although sources on the Magic team are hinting at a Willis Reed moment for Nelson, it’s highly unlikely he can play at an elite level.
The case for the Lakers is well-known and impressive: 65 regular season wins and a stated mission for redemption after a 39-point loss in Game 6 of the NBA finals last year in Boston. They have several young players who are just entering their prime; they have an all-star center in Pau Gasol, and unless you’re new here on Planet Earth, you’ve heard of their leader, Kobe Bryant. I stand by the doubts I had about this team after they struggled to eliminate a badly depleted Rockets team in the Western Conference semifinals, but if you missed the Lakers closeout game against Denver Friday night, then you missed one of the finest offensive displays in NBA history. As noted at Basketball Prospectus, they scored 66 points in 44 possessions. That’s on pace for 150 points in 100 possessions. The greatest offenses average about 120; to play at a rate of three points for every two possessions on the road in the conference finals for a full half is probably unprecedented.
I don’t think the Lakers can sustain that pace, but they don’t have to in order to win. The Lakers are very good defensively (they ranked sixth during the regular season in defensive efficiency) and third in three-point shooting percentage allowed. Lakers center Andrew Bynum at times looks like a future all-star and at other times looks like a boy trying to play a man’s game. In this series, he won’t have to be that future all-star, he will just have to be as good as Celtics center Kendrick Perkins was at keeping the Magic’s center Dwight Howard from getting easy access to the rim.
One of the Lakers’ goals at the start of the season was to secure home court advantage for the NBA finals and for good reason. Unlike the earlier rounds of the playoffs, the finals allot Games 1, 2, 6 and 7 to the higher-seeded team. Having Games 6 and 7 on the home court is a tipping point. In Games 6 and 7 of the NBA finals, since the two-three-two format was adopted in 1985, home teams have won 72 percent of the games. Only four times during that stretch has a team closed out a series on the road. I don’t think this will be the fifth; the Lakers will win in seven hard-fought games.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.