Basketball enthusiasts are missing some of the best basketball-related TV if they don’t flip to the ESPN News channel after each game in the NBA finals. In particular, Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy’s comments to reporters are the sort of thing Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert wished they had dreamed up.
Watching Van Gundy brings the tune “I Am the Walrus” to mind; He’s heavyset with a shaggy mustache and mop-top hairdo. His candor, theatrics and refusal to fit his comments into the conventional narrative of sports journalism are the best secondary pleasures of the finals.
After the Magic’s 99-91 overtime loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 4— ahem, sports writing cliché ahead—the pivotal Game 4, Van Gundy was in rare form. When asked if he thought his Magic players succumbed to the pressure of playing in the NBA finals, he threw up his arms and denied the charge. “My players have played in hundreds—probably thousands—of basketball games, many of them ‘big’ games,” he bellowed. “It’s just a basketball game; it’s not as if the rims are 11 feet high or the court is smaller in the finals.”
Then he proceeded to analyze the game better than most columnists. “We lost because of free throws, turnovers, and we didn’t execute down the stretch.” His wildly emotional commentary was a great contrast to the dry, detached monotone of Lakers coach Phil Jackson.
From late autumn 2006 until spring 2008, Van Gundy was out of coaching, and how ESPN and TNT failed to snare him into a broadcast booth is beyond me. His emphatic commentary and gesticulations make for great television. Unfortunately, for Magic fans (and Lakers haters alike), Van Gundy is doing a better job analyzing his team after the games than coaching them through key situations. Although the standard highlight clip package of Thursday night’s game will show two three-point shots by Derek Fisher as the difference, neither of those shots should have mattered. Let’s look at Van Gundy’s reasons and add another.
Free throws. During the post-season, the Magic have shot 73.24 percent from the line. If they shot anything like that on Thursday, then I’d be writing about a series tied at two games apiece. Instead, they shot 59.5 percent on Thursday and missed 35 or 40 of them (OK, it was seven) in the fourth quarter. Magic center Dwight Howard was a major culprit, missing a pair with 11 seconds to go that would have likely salted away the game.
Turnovers. The Magic have averaged 13 turnovers a game during the playoffs, but in both of their overtime losses, Game 2 and Game 4, they handled the ball like it was infected with H1N1 influenza. The 17 turnovers they committed on Thursday night devastated the Magic. The key ones came in the first half when foul trouble forced the Lakers into a lineup of Kobe Bryant and four reserves (none of whom was named Lamar Odom). The Magic took a 12-point lead (which L.A. easily erased in the third quarter), but for the turnovers, mostly careless passes, the Magic could have opened a commanding margin.
Execution. The Magic’s late-game meltdown, when they coughed up a five-point lead in the final seconds of regulation is mostly a matter of poor tactics. Lakers guard Derek Fisher hit a game tying three-point shot against a defender who was backing up rather than contesting the shot or fouling him on dribble. The inbounds play afterward, for a final shot went awry. (Hedo Turkoglu, who made the first pass, admitted that he panicked.) Then, in overtime, Fisher hit a three-pointer in the final minute to give Los Angeles an insurmountable lead. However, Fisher was free because his defender, Jameer Nelson, went to double-team Bryant and no Magic defender rotated, leaving the veteran guard a wide-open look.
A larger tactical issue involves the Magic not finding a way to get Rashard Lewis going. Lewis has been the Magic’s best perimeter scorer; he scored 34 in Game 2 and 21 in Game 3, but could not get open on Thursday night, when he managed only six points. Rather than run a few plays specifically designed to get him going, the Magic decided to try to beat the Lakers without their full arsenal.
The Magic’s tactical errors can’t obscure the single biggest aspect of this series. The Magic came in as the best defensive team in the league when measured by points allowed per possession, and they haven’t slowed the Lakers. The Orlando defense on Bryant has made him less efficient—he shot 11-31 on Thursday night—but Odom and center Pau Gasol are killing them. The Lakers have scored at a rate much more consistent with their usual offensive output rather than at a rate of a usual Magic opponent.
Although the Lakers could wrap this series—and their 15th NBA championship—on Sunday night, this has been a compelling and close one. There have been two overtime games, another decided by a single possession. Sunday night’s game should be close, but unless you’re the type to get body-painted in Orlando Magic blue and white, this series should be considered a done deal.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.
Martin Johnson writes about music for the Wall Street Journal, basketball for Slate and beer for Eater, and he blogs at both the Joy of Cheese and Rotations. Follow him on Twitter.