Thursday, June 4, 2009
Things to look for in the Magic-Lakers NBA Finals, starting tonight...
-Has there been a more enjoyable player to watch during the last two months than Mickael Pietrus? After several seasons rotting away on Don Nelson's bench in Golden State, the former lottery pick has finally found his place in the league. He has starred for the Magic off the bench, and was arguably their most valuable player in their series win over Cleveland. On offense, he was white-hot throughout the six games, where he also managed to unseat Bruce Bowen for the title of the 'NBA's best corner three-point shooter.' The combination of athleticism and shooting touch Pietrus has shown in recent weeks makes you understand why the Warriors risked the 11th pick on him in 2003, despite his sketchy overseas credentials. On defense, he was LeBron James' worst nightmare. It is the rarest of sights to see an individual player actually defending James one-on-one with any level of success, but Pietrus managed to do so. While you can never stop LeBron entirely, Pietrus was able to make him work for every single one of his points and forced him into a number of the eight turnovers he committed in the all-important Game 4 Magic overtime victory. The reason so many teams (Pistons chief among them) have been so helpless in defending James has much to do with the way they defend the pick-and-roll. Far too often, the man defending James will simply accept the screen and take that as their cue to find something else to do. Maybe they'll fight over the pick once in a blue moon, but that's the exception, not the rule.
This is not the case with Pietrus. He turned each pick-and-roll into a personal challenge, somehow managing to fight through the screen without fouling and stay in front of LeBron in the process. Evidence of Pietrus' quickness was on full display at the end of regulation in the aforementioned Game 4. LeBron made his mind up he would simply speed by his defender and attack the rim. But to King James' surprise, Pietrus was with him step-for-step. Nowhere to go. Sadly, the referees would get involved and whistle Pietrus for a horrid "tripping" foul to give the King his two free throws. But any neutral observer that saw the play knew what really happened. LeBron and Pietrus went toe-to-toe...and Pietrus won. It might sound like a stretch, but there were times in that series that I thought Pietrus was defending James as well as anyone I'd ever seen.
After disposing of one MVP, it is now on to the next. Pietrus will be counted on much of the time to hound Kobe Bryant into the same tough shots and bad turnovers he forced LeBron into during the conference finals. It's as difficult a task as there is in the NBA: defending the best players the league has to offer night after night. But if there's anybody that can do it right now, it is Pietrus. He has the agility and foot speed to handle their penetration, and as far as strength goes, without sounding weird, the man is definitely well put together. Like a finely tuned Pit Bull, Pietrus looks as if he has just one long muscle connecting throughout his whole body.
Michael Pietrus may have been an unknown scrub for years out in Oakland, but that is the case no longer. The 6'6 swingman from France is turning himself into a household name. Even if it's one you can't pronounce.
-The biggest reason the Magic might be able to pull the upset in their third straight series and take home the title...the three-point line. The Magic excel from deep and employ a multitude of shooters that can knock it down with consistency. Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu are both 6'10 forwards with unlimited range, making them an almost impossible cover for whoever gets the unenviable task of shutting them down. Rafer Alston has always had a smooth stroke and his 6-12 night from downtown in the crucial Game 4 victory over Cleveland might have been the single most important performance of the whole series. And then you have to deal with maybe the hottest shooter on the planet in Mickael Pietrus. If Jameer Nelson and his 45% clip from the long line can also join the fray and make a contribution, the Lakers could be in real trouble. Especially when you look at the deep shooters (or lack thereof) on Phil Jackon's squad.
Kobe Bryant can find his way into a 3-point zone every once in a while (tied for the record with 12 3's in a game, with Donyell Marshall), but he's been much more inclined in these playoffs to drive to the hole and create contact than rely on his skittish long-range game. It's no coincidence that the one easy win the Nuggets had in their six-game loss to the Lakers was the time when Kobe decided to let loose with an uncharacteristic 10 attempts from distance, making just two. The rest of the Lake Show is a real mixed bag of gunners. Trevor Ariza has knocked down his fair share of clutch bombs in this postseason, but nobody's confusing him with Glen Rice from the 2000 championship team. Derek Fisher and Sasha Vujacic used to be reliable 3-point shooters. But then two things happened. First, Vujacic started devoting ninety percent of his pre-game ritual to hair and makeup, losing his deadly marksmanship in the process. And second, Fisher started shooting with the same confidence Chuck Knoblauch had late in his Yankees' career when he began hurling routine throws from second base into the upper deck. It really has gotten that bad for Fisher. You used to dread leaving him open to double Kobe for fear of getting burned by his once lethal outside game. Now you can basically leave him unguarded, as evidenced by his woeful performance in the second round dogfight with Houston when Fisher managed to drain just 1 of 15 triples in the series. Thus, nobody was that surprised when Fisher was suspended for Game 3 and the Lakers played perhaps their most crisp game of the series. Believe it or not, the two guys that have consistently cashed in from trey-land have been Lamar Odom and Shannon Brown. Odom has finally realized that 'Less is More,' attempting fewer threes than usual, but knocking them down at a semi-shocking 52% mark. Brown has become the Lakers best option at the point, due in no small part to his ability to make teams pay for doubling off on Kobe and Gasol.
Many an upset in college and pro basketball history have been achieved because of the 3-point line. This series is no different. Lewis, Turkoglu, and Co. will need to be deadly from deep to steal this thing from the heavily favored Lakers. If not, it could get ugly in a hurry...
-Lemon Lime Gatorade. It's always been there for you. New flavors arrive and old flavors fade, but Lemon-Lime stands the test of time. Lemon-Lime aint flashy, it doesn't leap out and dance on your taste buds, but you plow through, finish your 20 fluid ounces, and feel like you did something right for a change. In a word, it's consistent. A buddy might let you down, maybe a co-worker sets you off, but I can't recall a time in my life when Lemon-Lime 'Rade has been anything but a loyal soldier and a true friend. So who's the Lemon-Lime Gatorade of the 2009 NBA Finals? What player on these two teams just oozes of that consistency that LLG has prided itself on for the last 200 years? Dwight Howard is a man-child and could easily go off for a 38 point, 23 rebound performance, but I can't in good conscience call him a true Lemon-Limer when he's luggin' around a sub-60 percentage from the free-throw line. How about Andrew Bynum? I'm afraid not. If this were a comparison for say, Fruit Punch Gatorade, he'd be our man; good every once in a while, forgettable the rest of the time. But we're talking Lemon-Lime here...the Cadillac of 'Rade. One good effort out of six won't fly. That's why I think the ultimate selection is Pau Gasol. You can count on the floppy-haired Spaniard for close to 40 minutes a night and a 20-12 performance to go with it. He was excellent in the Nuggets series, and his public outcry for more touches was the rare selfish ploy that actually made sense strategically. Gasol has proven to be a blue-collar performer that does not take a night off and looks to be as determined as anyone on either team to be the last man standing. Whether he winds up with the championship hardware is yet to be determined, but Gasol can sleep well knowing deep down that being selected to represent Lemon-Lime Gatorade in the upcoming Finals is an honor that could never be matched.
-So who do I like? I would like for the Magic to go out and shock the world. For Rashard Lewis to continue his heroics. For Rafer Alston to keep flashing that smile. For Dwight Howard to dominate the paint. For Pietrus to contain Kobe. For Stan Van Gundy to stop perspiring. But I don't see it happening. The Lakers found themselves on the doorstep last season, only to see their hated rival, the Celtics, walk away with the glory. That's how it works most of the time in the NBA. You inch your way closer and closer to the finish line, get knocked off course along the way, and then finally, when you're ready, you make the leap. Some of these Lakers (Fisher, Bryant) have tasted championship champagne before, but guys like Gasol and Odom are still thirsting for their first glass. The Magic's storybook playoff run, while exhilarating and unexpected, is still this group's maiden voyage into such territory. Their time may come eventually, but not just yet. Kobe gets his first post-Shaq title and the Lakers take it in six. With a little help from Lemon-Lime 'Rade along the way...
Got a prediction on anything related to the NBA Finals? Did you like Marcin Gortat better when he was called 'Matt Geiger'? Share those thoughts here, or drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org