A few weeks ago, I was debating the Los Angeles Lakers’ offense with a business associate. He harrumphed about the Lakers not playing team-oriented basketball because “it’s all just Kobe Bryant taking 40 shots a game.”
I corrected him on Bryant’s average shot total—it’s half that, 20.9 field goal attempts per game—and before he could claim that I was proving his point, I groused that a well-designed offense puts the ball in its best scorers as often as possible. I have these kinds of discussions often, since so many people think that NBA offense means give the ball to the guy with the sneaker contract and get out the way. I usually forget about those conversations, but Game 2 of the NBA finals on Sunday night vividly brought that one back to mind.
The Lakers beat the Magic 101-96 in overtime, but for Orlando most of the key moments involved players who shouldn’t have been the first offensive option. Twice in the final minute of the game, the Magic put the ball—and in all likelihood their chance at a title—in Courtney Lee’s hands.
Orlando is a team with an impressive array of offensive talent. Forwards Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis are among the league’s elite front-court players. Center Dwight Howard is in the early stages of what looks like a Hall of Fame-bound career. Lee is a rookie, who is best known as a defensive specialist.
That’s what made the final minute of regulation so mystifying. That Lee would take one shot isn’t a big deal. In Orlando’s penultimate offensive sequence, the Lakers deftly denied Lewis and Turkoglu open looks at the basket and smothered the passing lanes to Howard. Lee’s awkward drive and missed shot was all that was left. However, after Turkoglu blocked Bryant from behind and retrieved the ball, a play that would have gone into hoops lore had it led to a victory, the Magic drew up a play for Lee. He came off of a screen and had a free run to the rim just as the pass was lofted in the air. He caught it and missed the layup.
For the second time in these finals, the story of the game was the Lakers’ defense. In Game 1, it was hard to differentiate how much of L.A.’s 100-75 rout was owed to their superlative defensive play and how much was the result of a miserable game by the Orlando offense. In Game 2, we had a clear answer. The Lakers’ defense created 20 turnovers in the game. During the regular season, the Magic only committed an average of 13.9 turnovers per contest. There were 97 possessions in the game; on more than 1 in 5, the Magic coughed the ball up. It’s hard to beat the L.A Clippers like that, much less the Lakers. Seven of the turnovers were by Howard, and many of them on passes while he was double-teamed. The Orlando offense usually forces its opponents to pick their poison. Either Howard will score at will inside or Lewis, Turkoglu and other wing players will fire at will from long range. The Lakers have hindered both options, double-teaming Howard, who has scored a meager six baskets in two games so far, and swarming Orlando’s perimeter marksmen. At times, when Orlando had the ball, it looked like they were playing five on six.
Despite the intense defense, Lewis and Turkoglu had good games. They combined for 56 points on 20 of 38 shooting. The key for opening the middle for Howard to dominate will be getting one more perimeter player untracked. Right now, the Lakers are worried about three players, Howard, Lewis and Turkoglu. The other Orlando players shot a combined 8 for 31. That’s why Lee had such a clear path to the rim at the end of regulation.
Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy can take solace in the work of his defense, which slowed the Lakers. Los Angeles scored at a rate of 104 points per 100 possessions. Bryant’s 29 points and eight assists were offset by poor—by his standards—shooting (45 percent) and seven turnovers. The Lakers’ other stars did the Magic in. Gasol scored 24 points and grabbed 10 rebounds despite usually being guarded by Howard, the Defensive Player of the Year. Odom scored 19 points on remarkable 88.8 percent shooting and snatched eight rebounds. He’s an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, and his agent must have dollar signs in his pupils.
Thirty teams have taken on 2-0 leads in the NBA finals and 27 have won the title. However, you don’t have to be that long in the tooth to remember that in 2005, San Antonio won the first two games then just barely won the title in seven games. The following year, the Dallas Mavericks won the first two games of the finals only to lose the next four games to the Miami Heat after the series shifted back to Florida.
As the series shifts back to Orlando, for games on Tuesday, Thursday and (if necessary) Sunday night, the Magic can take to heart those precedents. And there’s one more for the road: Eighteen of the 30 teams down 0-2 in the finals have won Game 3. For the Magic, it’s time to narrow the focus to one game at a time.
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.