Six losses: one versus Utah, three versus Houston, and two versus Denver. After each one, the Lakers responded, winning by an average of 16.8 points. On Tuesday, a seventh loss; tonight, should the pattern hold, will be a seventh bounce-back win.
After the Lakers' Game 2 win in Los Angeles, I chatted with the Lakers Blog's Andrew Kamenetzky about the impending three-game road trip. John Ireland, as he packed up his stuff and headed out, had just mentioned that he expected the series to return to Los Angeles. AK agreed. Me? I've been making fairly reasonable, safe picks throughout these playoffs, so I decided that it's time to take a bit of a risk and go with the Lakers in five.
Andrew was pretty certain that the Lakers would lose Game 3; I wasn't as certain as he, but I agreed it wouldn't surprise me at all. What we both agreed on was that if the Lakers did win Game 3, this series absolutely would not return to L.A. That didn't happen, so we'll never know. We also agreed that the Lakers wouldn't lose three straight, and were unlikely even to lose two straight. AK thought the Magic would win Games 3 and 5, and drop Game 4 to the Lakers.
Me? I thought the Lakers had a chance to take Game 3, but figured that if the Magic won that game, the Lakers would win Game 4 and Game 5 would be a toss-up. But like I said, I've decided to go with the more risky projection for once, so I'm trimming down my original six-game prediction, and taking the Lakers in five. I think tonight's Game 4 will be a big bounce-back game for the Lakers. Then, in Game 5, I think the Game 3 loss will still be recent enough in their memories to inspire some carryover bounce-back effects. That, combined with the sheer drive that will come from being a single win from actually holding the championship trophy, will push this Lakers team to their fourth win.
I don't think we're coming back here. But we've got at least one more game after this one to decide that, so let's focus first on tonight.
Right off the bat, you can expect a regression to the mean in a couple of areas. First, Kobe won't make the mistakes he made on Tuesday; and second, the Magic won't make all the shots they made on Tuesday.
Click on through to read more about tonight's game in Orlando...
The obvious: Kobe Bryant missing five of 10 free throws may happen again at some point, but it won't be this year. He's also not likely to turn the ball over again on the key possession of the game. What's not necessarily as obvious is what he is likely to do in response to his poor shooting after the hot first quarter in Game 3. Frankly, Kobe fell in love with his jumpshot a little bit in that game. He was hitting everything, and he expected to be able to keep hitting those shots. After the first quarter, they didn't fall.
This isn't the first time Kobe has found himself taking too many jumpshots. In fact, it has happened before in these playoffs. And each time, almost on cue, he has responded by finding ways to get himself back into attack mode, getting to the basket for layups and dunks, and drawing fouls. I fully expect him to do that tonight.
It is also possible that the Magic will be looking to really clamp down on Kobe. They will expect him to want to get to the hoop more, and they may make it their goal to work harder at keeping him on the perimeter. This means more double teams, more traps, more help defense geared at Kobe. I expect Kobe to be reading the defense, and if they simply won't allow him to get to the rim, he will have opportunities to find open guys for high percentage shots (you don't keep Kobe away from the rim with just one defender, meaning that if they succeed at keeping him on the perimeter then his teammates will be open).
Kobe Bryant is very aware of the fact that in these few games, he has the opportunity to shape or re-shape peoples opinions of him. He knows he can't do that by missing a majority of his shots. As such, I doubt that anybody understands the need for him to find high percentage shots more than Kobe does. Simply put, don't just expect Kobe to commit fewer errors; expect him to have a good shooting night, too.
Meanwhile, expect the Magic to have a lesser shooting night. Will they struggle from the field, the way they did in the first two games? Not necessarily. They found ways to make the necessary adjustments to the Lakers' defense, and that's something that the Lakers will need to adjust to. Frankly, I don't think there is a better coach out there when it comes to game-to-game adjustments. Sometimes Phil Jackson's in-game adjustments leave us scratching our heads in bewilderment, but his adjustments between games are excellent. With the Magic having adjusted to the Lakers' defense, the ball is now back in Phil's court, and I expect him to once again find ways to frustrate what the Magic are trying to accomplish on offense.
That said, the Magic are playing on their home court, in front of their fans, with their playoff lives on the line, and with an opportunity to make this a legitimately contested series (no, despite the headlines, this is not yet "a series"). Stopping them will not be easy, and they may shoot well again. Even in Tuesday's win, they still did not utilize their characteristic, all-out long range assault. In fact, they have been fairly pedestrian from three-point range, in terms of both percentage and number of attempts. The Lakers are defending the three-point line well, for the most part, but tonight may be the night where the Magic break out the blitzkrieg, Shock & Awe style – pinpoint, laser targeted smart bombs and all.
All that aside, what I can predict with confidence is that the Magic will not be setting an all-time Finals record for shooting percentage in a game for the second straight game. Despite the Lakers' best efforts, they may still manage to shoot well – but they won't be shooting that well, or likely anything close to it.
Rafer Alston and Mickael Pietrus, in particular, are bound to fall back to earth. They played out of their minds on Tuesday. While I can see Pietrus continuing to play well, I don't expect him to be hitting the Kobe-esque shots he made in Game 3. As for Altson... who knows? Personally, I think he's as likely to play terribly as he is to play well. I don't think it's just a question of playing better at home; I think Alston is simply a streaky player. Advanced statistics be damned, I think he simply got hot in Game 3, and I don't expect him to be that hot tonight.
Lesser shooting percentages for the Magic – more "human," if you will – bodes well for the Lakers. In Game 3, Kobe played poorly through three quarters and make some major errors when the game hung in the balance, and yet, but for one or two errors, the Lakers could easily have won that game. Had they done so, nobody would have been surprised – not even Magic fans. Play that game 10 times, and I feel confident that the Lakers would win seven of them.
I also expect the Lakers offense, as a whole, to be better. While they played well overall, there were significant stretches where they played too much one-on-one basketball. Kobe was not the only one to blame for this. Lamar Odom and Derek Fisher were also guilty of this on several occasions. The overall result was that the ball did not move enough, which played into Orlando's hands. You can bet that Jackson made that point to his team, and if you remember back to the previous six bounce-back games of these playoffs, I think you'll recall that in most, if not all, of them, the Lakers' passing game was in top form. I expect some excellent ball movement tonight.
One more area where the Lakers not only can improve over Game 3, but absolutely will, is rebounding. Overall, the final numbers suggest that the Lakers rebounded evenly with Orlando. On the offensive glass, they were actually much better than the Magic. That said, the Lakers three big men (Bynum, Gasol, and Odom) combined for nine rebounds between the three of them. Andrew led the pack with four, Gasol had three, and Odom had two in 32 minutes. This, I can guarantee you, will not happen again. You may see another sub-standard rebounding performance out of Bynum, but expect Odom and especially Gasol to collect a lot of rebounds.
The bottom line: Game 3 didn't go the Lakers' way, but it easily could have. I felt that the Lakers actually played well, and yet there are several key areas in which the Lakers can improve, and in which I fully expect them to do so. At the same time, I think Orlando played out of their minds and over their heads. I expect another good game from both teams, but this time, a moderately less supernatural performance by the Magic won't be enough to beat the Lakers, who will deliver their seventh straight solid win after a loss.