Lakers 100, Magic 75: So Much for the Regular Season

The Los Angeles Lakers are 1-0 against the Orlando Magic. Those two losses, way back in the regular season? Game 1 of the 2009 NBA Finals made it obvious that they don't matter anymore. Those games were close, and they ended in Orlando wins. This game was not – and I don't have to tell you who won.

This was a blowout so thorough, the Magic will struggle to find even moral victories. Offensively, the Lakers were unstoppable, moving the ball and scoring in the paint at will. Defensively, they throttled the Magic. Overall, they simply played harder.

By all accounts, effort is what this game was all about. Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Dwight Howard, Jameer Nelson... the list of players who told us that this game was decided by effort goes on. A few examples from this blog's favorite player:

"We played very well. We played with a lot of energy. Guys are working hard. That's all you can ask for when you play against the Orlando Magic because they do a great job of spacing you out, and everybody on the floor has to be willing to work."

"No, I just think we did a better job, did a better job staying alert, and like I said, man 1 through 5, everybody was dedicated to working hard, came back in transition, did a pretty good job."

"We just had to work hard. Just worked hard. We scrambled. We were very active, our bigs were very active, and that's what you have to do against a team like Orlando. You've got to work your tail off 24 seconds."

"We've just got to keep working. I think we've been playing extremely well the last three games. We've just got to keep our foot on the gas and just keep on working."

You get the idea. For the record, Dwight Howard agreed:

"Tonight was just an off night – as a team we only made 23 shots and Kobe made 16 by himself. We've never had a shooting night this bad. We've just got to come out and play a lot harder than we did tonight. Even when we're not making shots, we've got to give a better effort. Our effort tonight, it just wasn't there. Nobody's effort was there. We didn't go for any loose balls, we just wasn't fighting. That's not Magic basketball."

For the record, it wasn't all about Orlando's shooting woes and lack of effort. In large part, this victory is a result of the Lakers' suffocating defense. In the first game of this series, they made it seem as though the matchup issues we've been discussing to such great length never existed in the first place. The Magic were 23-77 for the night, a dismal conversion rate of 29.9%. They also collected only 41 rebounds to the Lakers' 55, including 10 offensive rebounds to the Lakers' 15.

It started with their approach to Dwight Howard. It was quite simple, really – but of course, to Kobe's point, it was only effective because the Lakers played hard and put forth the necessary effort. First, they didn't double-cover Howard – but they didn't single-cover him, either. Instead, as Matt Moore stated at Hardwood Paroxysm, their defense started in the paint and fanned outwards. They hedged on Howard, and while he still had the option of making the pass, they kept a foot on the other side of the line, ready to bounce right back to the perimeter shooters when he kicked the ball out. But once Howard made his move and started going into his shot, that hedging second defender finally committed fully to the double team. Only a handful of players in the NBA are skilled at switching instantaneously to make the pass after they have already begun their shot, and it was not something Howard was able to do in this game. The result was that the Lakers were able to double Howard on the shot, rendering him far less effective in the paint, while still keeping an eye on his shooters.

When Howard did kick the ball out to his perimeter shooters, the Lakers were quick to react. This is where that effort comes in. As soon as Howard made the pass, the Lakers made quick rotations and ran Orlando's long bombers off of their shot. On the night, the Magic only took 23 three-point field goals, which is not a very high number for them. When they did get a three-point shot off, it was almost always contested. The result was that Orlando only made eight three-pointers, taking fewer than they often have in these playoffs and hitting them at a fairly pedestrian rate.

The brilliance of this scheme is that it was able to do both of these things at once. Personally, I would have been happy if the Lakers had contained Orlando's shooters but allowed Dwight Howard to have a dominant game. As I've said before, it's a question of team production versus individual production, and an entire team playing well is much more likely to win than a single player playing well. But tonight, they didn't give up either. They contained the Magic's shooters, while at the same time marginalizing Howard's individual impact on the game.

One final note about the Lakers' defensive effort – and we'll do this in bullet points:

  • Dwight Howard:  1-6 shooting, 12 points
  • Hedo Turkoglu:  3-11 shooting, 13 points
  • Rashard Lewis:  2-10 shooting, 8 points

Orlando's "Big Three" combined for 33 points – a total Kobe Bryant had already reached by the middle of the third quarter. Was this by design, or did these three great players simply have off nights, all on the same night? Time will tell, but this much I know: if the Lakers can successfully implement a "let the role players beat you" strategy, I might need to revise my prediction downward.

Offensively, the Lakers continued to operate at peak performance. That stagnant, one-on-one offense that emerged at certain points early in the Western Conference Finals? It was nowhere to be seen. The floor spacing was great, the player movement was exceptional, and ball movement was so crisp and quick that the Lakers got whatever shot they wanted, all night long. Even during one stretch, where Kobe Bryant took over and put the triangle on hold in favor of the high pick-and-roll, his teammates stayed engaged and the Lakers' passing continued to be excellent. When the Magic defense collapsed on Kobe, he simply found an open man, who continued to swing the ball until the Lakers got a great shot – often a layup or dunk.

The Lakers took only nine three-pointers in this game, making 3. However, they destroyed the Magic in the paint, where they had a 56-22 points in the paint advantage.

Of course, there was Kobe Bryant himself. Let's see here: 40 points, 8 rebounds, 8 assists, 2 steals, and 2 blocks, with only one turnover. The only negative to that line, if there even is one, is that it took him 34 shots to get those 40 points. Nonetheless, tonight was a night in which those 34 shots felt right – they were the right decision, and they dominated the game. Most significantly, during the critical second and third quarters – during which time the Lakers went from down two to up 24 – Bryant was shot 12-20 (6-9 in the second, 6-11 in the third) for 30 points, hit all six of his free throws, and also found time to collect five rebounds and dish out six assists. Quite simply, this was one of the best games any player has ever played – and Kobe Bryant did it on the biggest stage, in the biggest moment, giving his team a strong edge in the series and getting them one big step closer to their goal of winning a championship.

Kobe Bryant and the Lakers' defense were the biggest factors in this dominant Lakers win, but they were not the only ones. Pau Gasol was solid, scoring an efficient 16 points on 7-12 shooting and adding eight rebounds, as well as some fantastic defense in the post. His passing was also excellent, as always. Lamar Odom, Kobe Bryant, Luke Walton, and even Derek Fisher were able to score well in the paint, in part because of Gasol's presence.

Speaking of Odom, Lakers fans must be pleased. At this point, it appears that Odom may actually be putting together a whole run of good games. If that is the case, this team may even be capable of sweeping the Finals. Odom played aggressively and finished with 11 points and (doing what he does best) a team high 14 rebounds. He missed all of his three-pointers, but he was 5-8 inside the arc, and he played stellar defense.

Andrew Bynum, of course, also deserves mention here. By the end of the night, he only hit three of his eight shots, but having been at the game I can tell you that it felt as though he hit all of them. He only played 22 minutes, but while he was on the court, his presence was solid, and he played with energy and intensity. He played Howard very well, and was very instrumental in a good start for the Lakers. Though it must frustrate him not to be able to play more, I think that even if he only gets 22 minutes a game, the Lakers will be in great shape if he uses those 22 minutes the way he used them tonight.

Derek Fisher and Luke Walton were the surprises of the night – on both ends of the floor. Fish shot 4-6 and hit his only three-point attempt, and his defense was superb. His +/- rating for the game was a +22, second only to Kobe Bryant's +25. Luke Walton also played well offensively, effectively using his size in the post and scoring nine points on a very efficient 4-5 shooting. In a trend that must baffle Lakers fans, he continued to play excellent defense, contributing strongly to the effort to contain Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu. To boot, his 24 minutes on the court came without a single turnover.

A final thought that Lakers fans can breathe in deeply and derive pleasure from is the fact that, despite numerous opportunities, the Lakers never gave away any large leads. They were up by 10 at the half, but they didn't come out flat in the third quarter. Instead, they delivered a dominant, classic Lakers third quarter, winning the period by 14 and pushing the lead to 24. Even in the fourth, when garbage time could have started at about the nine-minute mark, the Lakers still refused to relinquish their lead. Their biggest lead of the night was 28 points; at the end of the game it was 25.

In fact, the Lakers dominated so thoroughly, so early, that DJ Mbenga saw some playing time... and Josh Powell even had the chance to launch a three-pointer, nailing it with one second remaining in the game to push the score to an even 100 points.

In the end, the offense was beautiful, but the defense and rebounding were the stories of the game – all of which, of course, brings us right back to what Kobe and everyone else were talking about, since defense and rebounding are all about effort. If the Lakers put that kind of effort into defense and rebounding for the remainder of the series, a 15th Lakers championship is all but guaranteed. In fact, if they play this hard on the defensive end and in cleaning the glass, we might not even get to see them finish it off in person.

Of course, there are no guarantees, and it remains up to the Lakers to bring the necessary effort. A good sign, however, was the Lakers' response after the game. As a group, they were very subdued. In their post-game press conferences, Gasol, Odom, and Kobe were quiet, unenthusiastic, and overly realistic about their current position. Nobody is counting any chickens. In fact, as Kobe said it, they're doing quite the opposite:

"I think the best thing we can do is just forget about it. That's the best thing we can do. This is a resilient Orlando Magic team. They've been through a lot of adverse situations before. This is nothing to them. The'll be ready to go Game 2, and we've just got to forget about this and move on."

Taken by itself, someone who heard that quote and had not seen the game would assume the Lakers had lost. It's a good mindset to have. If the Lakers maintain this attitude and continue their tremendous effort, they will accomplish the goal they established at the beginning of the season.

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