It's not the LeBron vs. Kobe matchup many were hoping for in the NBA Finals, but the Lakers and Magic will still provide us with plenty of must-see TV.
One team is looking for redemption, the other for respect when the NBA Finals open tonight in Los Angeles.
The Western Conference champion Lakers were the bridesmaid a year ago, losing the championship series in six games to the Boston Celtics. With the Celtics out of the picture, Kobe and Company are favored to complete a job they were unable to finish last season, namely winning an NBA title.
Meanwhile the Magic, recognized for most of the year as only the third best team in the Eastern Conference, stunned the Celtics and Cavs in consecutive series to earn their first title berth since 1995. Gone are Shaquille O’ Neal and Penny Hardaway; taking their place are Dwight Howard and Rashard Lewis.
Howard has truly been the beast of the East. The Orlando center has been a double-double machine in the playoffs. Howard is averaging just over 21 points and 15 rebounds. He’s also listed at +275 to win the finals MVP award.
But with all do respect to “Superman,” it’s the “Black Mamba”, Kobe Bryant, who will likely determine the outcome of the series. Bryant is averaging nearly 30 points, six rebounds and five assists per game. His motivation for winning the ring is simple. He wants to do it without Shaq. Kobe, by the way, is a -250 favorite to earn the series MVP.
How the Lakers defend Howard will be a big key in this series. Andrew Bynum needs to step up and play like he did before his knee injury. He’s looked unsteady and out of shape but he’s the Lakers one legitimate chance to tug on Superman’s cape. Otherwise the Lakers will have to double down on Howard and that will give Orlando’s bevy of three-point shooters some clean looks. Along that line, Pau Gasol’s defense on Rashard Lewis will be another important matchup.
The Lakers own a huge advantage in the experience category both on the court and on the bench. Phil Jackson has the best winning percentage in the history of the playoffs, he’s got more postseason wins than anyone who has ever prowled the sideline, and with nine NBA titles he’s tied with Red Auerbach. One more crown and the zenmaster will have the Celtics' legend in his rearview mirror.
And don’t for a moment think that his players aren’t aware of that statistic. If the Lakers win tonight when they’re favored by six, here’s another number to consider digest: A Phil Jackson coached team is 31-0 in a seven-game series in which they win the opener. This will be Kobe and Derek Fisher’s fifth NBA finals and that will be huge especially in Game 1.
The Magic swept both regular season meetings from the Lakers and have taken three of the last four meetings. The Lakers are -285 favorites to win the series while the Magic have a +250 dog tag.
Orlando backers can point to back-to-back series wins over the top two teams in the East, the Celtics and Cavs. Lakers proponents will have you look at this year's team being more battle ready after slugging it out with the Rockets and Nuggets to make it this far.
The NBA won’t get its desired Kobe vs. Lebron finals matchup. However the “Black Mamba” vs. “Superman” should make for a nice consolation prize for Commissioner David Stern. For the rest of us it’s definitely “must see” TV.