Is it too early to consider this a must-win game for Orlando? I'm sure plenty of people would say no, it is not too early. Based on how well the Lakers played in Game 1 on Thursday, the Magic need to equalize this series. Their is serious doubt in the minds of many as to whether this can even be a competitive series; If the Lakers go up 2-0, that doubt may begin to creep into the minds of the Magic, as well.
Furthermore, consider that the Finals series format is potentially beneficial, but also quite risky, to the team that does not have home court advantage. The potential benefit is that after five games, Orlando will have played three home games to L.A.'s two, even though the Lakers actually have home court advantage. The risk, however, lies in the fact that it is extremely difficult to win three straight games at this level of competition. Considering how the Lakers have played in the last three games, and how thoroughly they dominated the Magic on Thursday, I feel confident saying it's not only difficult, but actually impossible for the Magic to beat the Lakers three straight times. Not impossible in the sense of Einstein and the scientific method and the laws of physics – impossible in the sense that it's just not going to happen. Period.
Draw this out to its logical conclusion, and you begin to see why this is a must-win game for the Magic. It is not just about the psychological effect of being down 2-0, though that would certainly be a concern. Nor is it about having to win four out of five games, though that would certainly be a huge problem. It's about the fact that if the Magic can't be counted on to win three straight – at home or otherwise – then they will need to take not one game in Los Angeles, but two. Of course, the Magic taking two straight in L.A. is about as likely as them taking three straight in Orlando.
The only way the Magic could reasonably be expected to win this championship series is to take Game 2 at Staples Center, take two of the three at home, and then come back and split the final two in L.A. Even that is a tall order, but it is really the only conceivable possibility.
Conclusion: Game 2 is a "must-win" game for the Magic.
So what must the Magic do to win Game 2? Frankly, I'm not sure. If I thought it was that easy, I wouldn't be as confident in a Lakers win as I am feeling right now.
Read on for more on the upcoming Game 2 in Los Angeles...
The Magic's problems all start with the soon-to-be 2009 Finals MVP, Kobe Bryant. To put it bluntly, what they did in Game 1 failed miserably. Kobe Bryant is not LeBron James; as I have said on many occasions, a player with a singular incredible ability can be contained much more easily than a player with an incredibly diverse overall skill set. Keeping LeBron James away from the hoop was nothing original. The Spurs did it to sweep the Finals in 2007; the Celtics did it to grind out a victory in the Conference Finals in 2008; and now the Magic used it to roll to a six-game Conference Finals victory in 2009. But the Magic need to remember who their opponent is, and quickly. Kobe Bryant is not LeBron James, and so simplistic a strategy will not work.
Sag off of Kobe to take away the layups and dunks, and he'll nail those jumpshots all night long. Then, before you know it, they'll be stepping up to take away the jumpshot – if he makes enough of them, they won't feel they have a choice. And that's when he'll do what he did at the end of the first half in game one, baiting the defender with the outside shot and then blowing by for the layup or dunk.
Unfortunately, the solution isn't that easy. Just ask Denver. Play up in Kobe's face to prevent the jumpshot, and he'll be getting into the paint all night long. That puts the defense even more off balance, and creates endless opportunities for free throws for Kobe and wide open shots for his teammates. What, then – double team? The problem is that Kobe no longer fears passing to his center, now that he's got a couple that are very capable of catching and finishing. He no longer fears to pass to his point guards, now that he's got a couple that can hit shots and make plays. He no longer fears to pass to his power forward, now that he's not named Brian Cook. And even Lamar Odom is playing great these days!
In all seriousness, Kobe Bryant showed in the last two games of the Western Conference Finals why you can't trap him. The idea that he's a selfish player is antiquated, and was never very accurate in the first place. Such a silly theory is nothing more than troll fodder, anymore. Meanwhile, the rest of this team is too good to be allowed to play four on three. And in the Conference Finals, the team as a whole seemed to find the perfect balance, working Denver's double teams on Kobe and Pau Gasol to perfection.
Quite frankly, I'm not sure Orlando has much of a choice. Their initial game plan against Kobe failed miserably, but the other options are even worse. Kobe Bryant is just that lethal. But given the options, I expect they'll continue to let him shoot the mid-range jumper. Given that he's one of the greatest shooters of the mid-range jumper in the history of the game, I expect him to continue to hit it. What remains to be seen is whether or not the Magic will eventually break down, panic, and start doubling Kobe. Given the stakes, and the importance of Game 2, if he's playing like he did on Thursday, then I expect it will happen before the night is over.
Lamar Odom, as always, continues to be an x-factor. But I'll tell you a little secret: I'm less worried about him right now than I have ever been. Why? Because it's about defense. I believe that The Candyman has fully bought in on the defensive end, as has the rest of this team. On Thursday, he was out of his mind on defense. When Lamar Odom is playing that kind of defense, it's hard for teams to score – especially when he is matched up with one of their primary scoring options. Furthermore, Lamar Odom playing high energy, intense defense is the kind of thing that gets the entire team going. He's got that emotional factor, where when he is doing it, they're not just driven by it – they're drawn into it.
As we know, defense is primariliy about effort, and I'm not worried about Odom's effort at this point. I believe in the man's heart, and in the strong need he feels for redemption and validation. Furthermore, if he is putting his heart and soul into defense, playing with the frenetic energy we saw in Game 1, it is simply inevitable that he will be involved on offense. That aggressiveness will leak over, and he won't be able to be passionate on defense and blasé on offense. Because it all starts with defense, which comes down to effort, I'm honestly not worried.
Andrew Bynum will be a factor. I'm saying it here, predicting it with confidence. It's not just that his knee appears to be doing better, though it is. It's that he has understood his role. And know that when I say he will be a factor, I don't mean in the way he was in late January, where he was putting up 20/17 games. I mean more of what he did in Game 1, where he played aggressive defense, benefited from the attention given to Kobe and Pau on offense, and fouled Dwight Howard hard when he needed to. Fisher said it during the Western Conference Finals, and it's worth repeating that this is a personal sacrifice for Bynum, and it shouldn't go unnoticed. The fouls put him on the bench, and he desperately wants to be on the court. But the 22 minutes he delivered on Thursday were far more valuable than 34 minutes of the tentativeness we've seen in previous games. I expect more of the same, and I see it, that is more than adequate from Bynum. I'm proud of him for understanding his role and being willing to take the personal hit in order to help his team win a championship.
The chess game between coaches will be interesting to watch. Phil Jackson played Stan Van Gundy like a fiddle in Game 1. He and Kobe Bryant saw the weakness in Orlando's defense, and the early high pick-and-roll they went to was utterly destrictive. Van Gundy and the Magic were unable to adjust and counter. If Orlando's coaching staff don't get it together and find a way to keep up with the wiles of Jackson and Bryant, this series will be over before you know it.
Here's something to watch for: Pau Gasol running the floor. I sure hope you noticed it in Game 1. The man is not just running – he is sprinting. In a game that lasts almost three hours, he looks like he's competing in the 100 meter dash. The fact that he typically plays the most minutes on the team, certainly more than your typical big man, and that he has been doing so relentlessly throughout the regular season and the playoffs, speaks volumes to his conditioning. How a man his size can hold up under such intense physical strain for such long duration, and handle it so well, is beyond me. It is a pure joy to witness, and I hope you notice that tall, stark white Spaniard streaking down the court.
Folks, I leave you with this thought: If the Lakers can keep up this effort, they will be celebrating victory in front of a hostile crowd. Now, don't freak out on me, because that is not a prediction. That is a conditional statement, with a pretty significant condition. But it is beginning to look like they just might be reaching a point where they can play at this level consistently, and if they do, quite frankly, I don't care what the Magic do. So if you're going to this game, as I will be, then do like me and soak it in. I wouldn't bet on it yet, but it's not inconceivable that this could be the last Lakers game played in Staples Center this year.
My prediction for Game 2: A beter Magic team and a tougher game, but a third quarter separation and another Lakers win, giving them a strong upper hand and putting them halfway toward their ultimate goal.