Let’s Not Bury the Orlando Magic Just Yet

Dwight Howard 2009 NBA FinalsTo be perfectly honest, I fully expect the Lakers to win this series. No book I know of is giving sweet enough odds for me to put a $50 spot on the Orlando Magic pulling this out. I said in our Previews and Predictions piece before the series that I thought the Lake Show would take this series in five games. Two games in Los Angeles is up 2-0, things have gone pretty much according to plan, and I’ll stick with my 4-1 pick.

Even so, I also expect the Magic to pull out a W in Game Three. As I said in the preview: I’m a believer in the Orlando Magic. They didn’t get here by chance, they’re an excellent team. And given LA’s propensity to take entire games off, a Lakers championship is far from in the bag.

After a 100-75 drubbing in Game One in which Orlando was never in it after the first quarter, the Magic responded in promising fashion in Game Two with several adjustments and better individual play overall. On Friday night Orlando came out looking every bit like a team that had never been here before and had no idea what to expect from themselves.

Almost to a man, they looked shell-shocked, confounded, completely lacking in confidence and bereft of clarity of vision and mission – Stan Van Gundy as much as anybody.

Orlando got next to nothing from their points as Jameer Nelson and Rafer Alston combined for the entire 48 minutes and a fugly line of 5-18 from the field (with just two free-throw attempts), 4 rebounds, 5 assists, and 12 points. Give credit to the Lakers aggressive and trapping defense, but that kind of production isn’t going to cut it regardless of the situation. For much of the game Los Angeles, hopefully to his embarrassment, wasn’t even bothering to put a man on Alston. They should improve, but clearly Orlando needed somebody else to step up at the top of the key going forward.

Dwight Howard Photo Credit: Icon SMI

Despite a sub-par bottom line, Hedo Turkoglu was the only man in blue who looked somewhat confident and comfortable coming out of the gate on Friday. His combination of length, ball-handling and passing clearly gives LA trouble. So give Van Gundy credit for recognizing that and assigning him more of the ball-handling and distribution duties in Game Two. Alston and Nelson played a combined 42 minutes (out of 53) while Hedo’s minutes jumped from 33 to a whopping 47. He responded with 22 points, 6 boards and 5 assists on 8-17 from the field despite Trevor Ariza’s consistently physical, pestering defense for a bulk of the game.

Drawing all of Ariza’s attention helped free up Rashard Lewis to go off to the tune of 34 points, 11 boards, 7 assists and 6 threes while shooting 12-21 from the field. And, of course, that had a trickle-down effect on Dwight Howard’s interior play, where he had more room to breath and dropped a much more respectable 17 points, 16 boards, 4 assists, 4 steals and 4 blocks on 5-10 shooting – a far cry from his 1-6 shooting performance in Game One. His aggressiveness and boxing out on the block also allowed his team to go from -14 in rebounding in Game One to +9 in Game Two, which is obviously key. Howard still needs to find the open man more consistently, he’s missed dozens of assist opportunities so far, and the turnovers simply can’t stay that high (7 in Game Two), but Dwight was clearly more comfortable and assertive, and his teammates fed off of it.

That’s a lot of positive things from their Big Three to build on. If nothing else, as heartbreaking a loss as it was, Orlando proved to themselves in their Game Two OT loss that they deserve to be here and that they can hang with these guys. And while they can’t dwell on it, the Magic know they were one Courtney Lee missed oop from sending this thing back to Orlando 1-1 with three straight home games on the docket.

Perhaps the Orlando Magic’s biggest advantage, after the jump…

Orlando Magic 2009 NBA Finals

The Orlando Magic Regroup Photo Credit: Icon SMI

Which segues nicely into perhaps the best thing Orlando has going in its favor: the silly NBA Finals scheduling. Instead of sticking to the 2-2-1-1-1 format that the league adheres to in every other playoff series, the Finals go 2-3-2. It’s a clear attempt to maximize the length of the series. There’s a lot of money left on the table any time one team ends a series in short order and front-loading the underdog’s home games is designed to keep them in it for as long as possible. I’m not a fan. I don’t think it’s fair to the team that earned their home-court advantage, but that doesn’t mean there’s any shame in Orlando taking full advantage of their three consecutive home games.

And the Magic are a team capable of doing just that.

Orlando was a robust 32-9 (78%) at home in the regular season compared to a more pedestrian, though still very strong, 27-14 (65.8%) on the road. So far in the postseason they’ve gone 7-2 (77.7%) at Amway Arena, but just 5-7 (41.6%) away from home. Their two home losses in the playoffs thus far have both come down to the last possession, good for a combined three-point deficit. They’re difficult to beat in Orlando. And they’re going to have to be, because the odds of the Magic taking two games in Los Angeles to close the series are next to nothing. And while they can sleepwalk through one or two games, the Lakers aren’t going to roll over for three consecutive games no matter where they’re being played.

That said, so far the Lakers have looked human outside of LA in these playoffs. The Lakers are a mean 10-2 at home to this point but a mere 4-4 on the road. They’ve played much worse on both sides of the ball outside of Staples Center in the postseason. On offense they shoot a significantly lower percentage from the floor (48.1% to 44.4%), hit fewer free-throws (77.3% to 72.5%), are significantly less efficient passers (22.0 assists per to 17.3 per) and it results in a full 6 fewer points per game (105.1 drops to 99.0). Defensively, they rebound at a slightly lower rate (43.5 to 41.5) while making fewer big plays on that end – 8.5 steals and 7.7 blocks per at home has dropped all the way to 7.4 steals and just 4.9 blocks on the road.

As I said, Orlando has to hold serve and sweep their next three games at home. That’s really the only way they can realistically stay in this thing. But if they can do that, if, then they head back to Los Angeles knowing they just need to steal one of two on the road. And who knows, maybe that Courtney Lee layup drops this time.

Related Reading:
College is for Chumps in the 2009 NBA Finals
Postcards From LA, Vol. 5
ETB’s 2009 NBA Finals Preview & Predictions


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