Who will win the NBA finals?
No one expected the Orlando Magic to be here. No one expected the Cleveland Lebrons, I mean the Cleveland Cavaliers, to fall so hard and miss their first serious chance at an NBA title.
Everyone expected the Lakers to be here, at the NBA’s biggest stage. The NBA finals may not be the matchup everyone expected, including sports analysts and bloggers, but it is going to be one hell of a matchup.
So what will be the outcome of this intriguing best of seven matchup? Who will be sipping Cristal champagne, and who will be hanging their heads on the sidelines?
As USA Today put it, “Bron-Bron is gone-gone”, and the NBA is surely a bit nervous about the loss of a potential high interest matchup.
Now we have the Kobe Bryant Show to look forward to. Bryant is one of the most polemic figures in sports – you either love him or hate him. But, like him or lump him, Bryant will be the focus of media attention now that King James has been slain.
The Kobe Factor
Bryant, the Los Angeles Lakers guard with a killer jump shot and enough swagger for an entire entourage of gangsta rappers, calls himself the “Black Mamba”. The Mamba will have to share the stage with a fellow Olympic teammate, Magic center Dwight Howard. Howard, who is just 23 years old, was just a sixth grader when the most famous Laker turned pro at the even more tender age of 18.
In an interview, Bryant claimed he “[doesn’t] give a damn” that Lebron is out of the finals. It is obvious that Bryant just wants to win. He is pumped up. You may have seen the stinkeye he gave his last opponents, the Denver Nuggets, throughout their conference finals series. Despite the mean face, Bryant was obviously looking more than a bit fatigued. After scoring a massive 41 points in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals against the Denver Nuggets, ESPN reported that Bryant needed intravenous fluids, and a call from his wife prompted him to really rest up, reportedly sleeping for 10 hours straight to rest up for the next game.
And he should be tired. Consider that over the last 18 months, Kobe Bryant has played (and almost always started) in well over 200 NBA regular season, playoff and Olympic games. In fact, his 211 games is the most of any NBA player. Why is he putting himself through this? Bryant is hunting for something has evaded him for the past few years – a fourth title ring.
Bryant is usually characterized as having the kind of competitive streak it takes to be a true leader in the NBA. He will no doubt energize himself to try to slay the dragon that has eluded him for seven excruciating years. Twice during that streak of title droughts, once against the Detroit Pistons in 2004 and again versus the Boston Celtics in 2008, he and his fellow Lakers just couldn’t pull it off. In fact, Bryant hasn’t won a ring since Shaquille O’Neal, his on again off again friend and former teammate, played with the Lakers. Even scarier for Bryant — he is no longer the overall best player in the NBA.
You could make the argument that Dwight Howard is that player, though this year’s NBA was in fact Lebron James.
Bryant is still considered the game’s best “closer”. The trainer for the Los Angeles Lakers, Gary Vitti, once remarked that Bryant “would play your 4-year-old daughter in a game of jacks — and cheat to win.”
Will Dwight Howard make a difference?
Dwight Howard has the body of a grown man, and he has grown into his game. In fact, it is difficult at times to forget that he’s just 23 years old and the Orlando Magic’s youngest player by some degree.
Dwight Howard’s young age explains a fascinating anecdote reported to the media after the Orlando Magic’s first team meeting after they qualified for the NBA Finals opposite the Lakers. Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy was delivering a classic coach’s lecture about keeping your head in the game.
Van Gundy was trying to use the story of Dan Marino, himself a legendary Miami Dolphins quarterback who made it to a Super Bowl early in his career and apparently went into the game with a big head. Marino, if you believe the legend, figured this appearance was the start of his dynasty.
If you remember that Super Bowl in 1985, you know that Marino lost that Super Bowl with a seriously lopsided score of 38 to 16, and never made it back to the NFL championship. Though Marino was an excellent player, and is in fact a part of the NFL Hall of Fame, he never got a chance to get that ring again, all because he walked through the game as though he’d already won it.
Dwight Howard had to pay close attention to Van Gundy’s story. You see, Dwight Howard was hearing the story of Dan Marino’s cockiness for the very first time. The Magic’s star player wasn’t born at the time of Marino’s infamous Super Bowl appearance – it was in January of 1985.
Speaking to the media, Howard acknowledged the impact of the story. “Coach talked about Dan Marino, how he said the first time he got to the Super Bowl, he was happy, he got caught up in being in the Super Bowl and the limelight and all that, and in the game he wasn’t as focused. And Dan said the next time he gets to the Super Bowl, he’s going to be more focused. But he never got back.”
Obviously Howard wants to enter this Finals series with the right mindset. Players have to remember that you never know what could happen in the NBA’s biggest games. Howard needs to remember that he’s going there to win.
The Orlando Magic have a similar story that Howard is well aware of. The Magic’s string of playoff failures goes all the way back to 1995, when the Magic had another megastar big man, but were barely a presence in the Finals. The dominant young center Shaquille O’Neal (who would later figure into the Laker’s own championship story) made it seem like the Magic were at the beginning of a lengthy basketball dynasty in the mid 1990s. They never even won a game in the 1995series – in fact, they were picked apart piece by piece by Hakeem Olajuwon and the dominant Houston Rockets, who would go on to produce a dynasty of their own.
Howard has recently been seen getting very emotional about the turnaround he’s seen in the Orlando Magic. The franchise’s luck began to turn around when the phenomenal Howard was chosen as the first pick of the 2004 NBA draft. The Magic were one of the league’s worst teams, on and off the court at the time of the draft. Their previous season resulted in a pathetic 21-61 record. Tracy McGrady, then the Magic’s only bright spot, demanded a trade out of Orlando.
Howard’s game eventually matched his enormous physical talents, and his body grew both more massive and more controlled. Slowly but surely, the Magic started establishing themselves as one of the beasts of the Eastern Conference. Howard, known as Superman, had the Magic in the playoffs by just his third season, led the team into the second round by his fourth season, and now finds himself at the helm of the league’s most exciting team in just his fifth season.
Howard survived a challenging six game series against the unlikely Philadelphia 76ers in the first round, won a very clutch Game 7 against a tough Boston team that was the reigning world champs in the semifinals, and did the impossible by destroying the Lebron James led Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals. Howard was visibly overcome near the end of last Saturday night’s Conference final clincher.
To help the Magic win the NBA title Howard so desperately craves, the Magic will have to accomplish a task that no other NBA team in history ever has. If Orlando can beat the Lakers (who won 65 games in the regular season) it would become the first team ever to vanquish three 60 win teams in one playoff go round. The Magic have already beaten the Celtics (with 62 wins) and did what no one thought was possible by vanquishing the Cavs (who had 66 wins) – still the Lakers present the greatest task so far. Should the Lakers win the first game, the Magic may have already lost. Under coach Phil Jackson, no Lakers team that wins game one of a series has lost.
The Lakers have the NBA’s deepest team, and certainly the best squad that the Magic have face thus far. They have the “ultimate closer” in Kobe Bryant, and a massive front squad that will try to wear down Howard with sheer brute force.
But Howard, the Magic’s 6 foot 11 center, is playing basketball like a man possessed. Howard has said that the feeling in the Magic’s locker room is that if they play the game they know, no one can beat them, including the powerhouse Lakers.
Orlando has already proved their mettle against the Lakers. They beat the Lakers twice for the first series sweep against the LA squad in the Orlando Magic’s 20-year history. And to top it off, the Magic have won at the Staples Center in each of their games in LA the past two years. Playing in the Staples Center shouldn’t be trouble for Howard and company.
Howard is realistic. He knows that Orlando is being given little chance if any on a national scale. Howard takes this in stride — he might be the biggest and baddest guy on any given basketball court, but he says he likes playing the role of the underdog.
How can Kobe get that elusive ring?
Kobe Bryant was once known as a loner, a guy who thought he could carry the weight of an entire team on his back. Bryant has apparently learned to play nice with others in recent years, even if just a bit. He is a better teammate on the court, and is being called selfless for the first time in his career. Last week, ESPN reported that Bryant texted teammate Pau Gasol at 3 in the morning, saying “be ready to play tomorrow”. Sometimes a leader has to be the bad guy.
Bryant has that withering stare all too familiar to players around the league and to his own teammates. When teammates make mistakes, they can expect to be admonished not with words but with a deadly stare.
There has been more than a little controversy around Bryant’s presence in LA. Lakers coach Phil Jackson penned a book in 2004, The Last Season: A Team in Search of Its Soul, in which the coach gave Bryant a terrible review, calling him “uncoachable” and describing Bryant as a “callous gun for hire.” Bryant has since demanded to be traded, fought with his teammates and coaching staff, and feuded publicly with coach Jackson. Apparently, they have reached a happy medium.
Now that Bryant has a better supporting cast of players, the virtually unstoppable guard has settled into his “playmaker” style. In Bryant’s past, he alienated teammates because he felt he had to take the last shot.
Don’t count Bryant out because he is a celebrity. He might look flashy in public and he might have a nice boy image, but he is often called the hardest worker in the NBA – a league full of hard workers. His career playoff scoring average is 24.8, which is fifth all time among players of his caliber, meaning those with 2,500-plus points.
Bryant, besting his average by scoring 29.6 points this postseason, studies films of his opponents like a movie critic, looking for flaws he can exploit. In Game 5 against the Nuggets, Bryant blossomed before everyone’s eyes into a more traditional ball handler because of the Nuggets defense. The Nuggets tactic to stop Bryant was to challenge him to a possession game, telling Bryant in effect that he couldn’t beat them by passing the ball, and he couldn’t beat them being selfish. Bryant accepted the challenge, and cut them apart precisely.
In fact, after Kobe Bryant destroyed the Nuggets in a clinching Game 6, Denver coach George Karl had this to say about the league’s most notorious closer — “I think Jesus would have had trouble covering him.”
Who will win this series? It comes down to a battle of the big men. Both teams have a decent supporting cast. Can Bryant keep his selfishness in check? Can Howard become the dominant force we’ve been expecting?
It’ll be a blast finding out.