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John Schuhmann

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The Magic aren't in The Finals by a fluke

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com
Posted Jun 1 2009 7:15AM

We knew the Los Angeles Lakers would be here. There was some doubt at times, of course. They lost their focus against the undermanned Rockets and were outplayed by the Nuggets early in the conference finals. Deep down though, we knew L.A. was the best team in the West.

But we thought we'd be looking at a Finals rematch between the Lakers and the Boston Celtics, or a marketing matchup featuring Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.

For most of the season, talk of who would win the Eastern Conference focused on Boston and Cleveland, and rightfully so. The Celtics were the defending NBA champions, and the Cavs were atop the standings. Not many outside of Orlando thought it was the Magic's turn.

The Magic didn't come out of nowhere and didn't win 59 games without being an excellent team on both ends of the floor. There was a four-game road trip in mid-January, when the Magic beat each of the Western Conference division leaders and also set an NBA record with 23 3-pointers in Sacramento, which opened eyes and had us asking if they were for real.

They had clearly improved from last season, especially on the defensive end, with a more active Dwight Howard patrolling the paint. And offensively, Jameer Nelson became a weapon who had to be respected on the perimeter.

But in early February, Nelson wet down for the season with a shoulder injury and any thoughts of the Magic being a title contender went out the window. They had lost more than an All-Star. They lost their floor leader.

The trading deadline came though, and Otis Smith made a deft move by acquiring Rafer Alston from Houston to run the show. It was a nice trade, but we thought it would just keep the Magic among the top three in the East. They still weren't as good as the Cavs or Celtics.

Even through the first two rounds of the Playoffs, we didn't see this coming. The only thing impressive about beating the Sixers in six games was that they finished the series off in Philadelphia without Dwight Howard and Courtney Lee. And they shouldn't have fallen into a 3-2 hole against the Garnett-less Celtics.

Clearly, in order to beat the Cavs, who were simply dominant in the first two rounds, the Magic needed to be sharper and more focused than they had been. That they were, and going into The Finals, Orlando is playing its best basketball.

The conference finals were about execution. The Magic didn't do anything special offensively or defensively against the Cavs. They just outplayed them.

Their offense was comprised almost entirely of two plays. They ran high screen-and-rolls with Hedo Turkoglu and Dwight Howard, and they posted Howard up on the low block. The game plan was simple, but impossible to stop.

Howard is not only dominant when double-teamed, but his passing has improved tremendously and made teams pay when he was double-teamed.

"We threw a lot of different things at him," Cavs coach Mike Brown said after Game 6, "and he was patient. Eight out of ten times, if not more, he made the right play."

Boston was able to defend Howard with some success because Kendrick Perkins didn't need much help and the other Celtics were mostly able to stay at home defensively. If Andrew Bynum can hold his own in single coverage on Howard, then the Lakers will have an advantage.

L.A. did not double Howard in the two games they played in the regular season. The defense collapsed when he got the ball in the post, but there was no hard double-team. And both Bynum and Pau Gasol provided better resistance in single coverage than anybody on the Cavs did in the last two weeks.

Of course, the Magic don't just execute in the halfcourt. They're excellent in transition. Even after foes score, Alston pushes the ball up the court. They have athletes to fill the wings, shooters from the perimeter that must be found early, and Howard can race down the floor and establish position under the basket, too.

The last time these teams played, Alston was still with the Rockets and Nelson was the Magic's leading scorer in both games, averaging 27.5 points. Trevor Ariza was still coming off the bench for the Lakers, who had yet to deal Vladimir Radmanovic to Charlotte for Shannon Brown and Adam Morrison. So, there are some significant differences with both rosters.

A key matchup in The Finals will be Lewis and Gasol. It could very well be a mismatch on both ends of the floor, with Gasol too much for Lewis in the low block, and Lewis to quick for Gasol on the perimeter.

The Cavs stayed at home on Lewis, trying not to give him space to shoot from the outside. But when he was guarded by a big man, he easily beat them off the dribble, drew another defender and made plays for teammates. Gasol doesn't have the quickness to say with him either, but the Lakers can use Lamar Odom off the bench on Lewis if the double-mismatch favors the Magic.

On defense, the Magic will have to deal with the efficient and effective triangle offense, as well as last season's MVP, Kobe Bryant.

"Our reward [for winning the East] is you get to go from preparing for LeBron to preparing for Kobe," Van Gundy said sarcastically.

Bryant averaged 34.5 points against the Magic this season and recorded a triple-double in L.A., but shot a ridiculous total of 57 shots in the two games. Courtney Lee will likely get the initial assignment, but expect to see lots of Mickael Pietrus, who did a solid job on James.

With so much offensive talent on both rosters, The Finals, like the last series, will come down to execution. And if the Magic execute like they did against the Cavs, they'll be in good shape.

NBA.com's John Schuhmann will be covering the NBA Finals from Los Angeles and Orlando. If you have a question or comment for him, send him an e-mail. You can also follow him on twitter.

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