If these playoffs have taught NBA fans everywhere anything, it's that this league is all about match-ups. Just take a look at what Orlando did to Cleveland in the Eastern Conference Finals if you need proof as to the importance of match-ups. The Cavs didn't have a four that could play out to the three-point line so they were routinely killed defensively. It's not awful to give that up on one end though if you can get it back on the other end, but who was going to make Orlando pay on the offensive end? Ben Wallace? Anderson Varejao? I think not. Not only did Orlando play fantastic, but they matched up extremely well with the Cavs. Arguably the biggest two reasons the Lakers beat Denver is because the Nuggets didn't have a defensive match-up for Kobe and the Lakers had one for Carmelo. Throw in the way the Lakers' triangle offense torches a defense reliant on switches and the Lakers had a match-up advantage over Denver.
Now, Sideout has already picked apart the 2009 NBA Finals position-by-position so we know who will be matching up with whom, but now we'll take a look at how the Los Angeles Lakers and Orlando Magic match-up offensively and defensively. We'll look at what to expect from each team on each end of the court and who has the advantage, if any advantage, in each aspect of their defensive and offensive games. So, with that said, jump on in and we'll see what we can find out.
Lakers' Offense vs. Magic's Defense
The one good thing about breaking down the Lakers' offense is that they run their same sets regardless of who the opponent is. The Lakers, well really any Phil Jackson team, will run the triangle offense possession after possession, game after game, season after season. Even when they clear out half of the court for Kobe Bryant, once Kobe goes to the rim, you can see the Lakers space out into something strikingly similar to their triangle sets. Now, the bad thing about breaking down the Lakers' offense is that you can't predict exactly what they'll do. They get into their basic sets, but from there, each cut, screen, pass is dictated by a read that can't quite be predicted.
Orlando's defense isn't overly complicated. They don't have any distinct schemes like the Lakers do with their strong-side zone. The Magic pretty much play you straight up, which would seem to be a major problem for them. Take a look at the Magic's starting five and you see one elite defender. Dwight Howard is that one guy, but their other four, Rafer Alston, Courtney Lee, Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis are all mediocre to poor defenders. Now, a team with only one elite defender can't be that good, right? Wrong. The Magic finished atop the NBA in defensive efficiency in the regular season and have allowed 100 points in only five of their 19 postseason games, while holding their postseason opponents under 90 seven times.
How do the Magic do it? Well, they're physical, strong and play right on top of their opponents. Their goal is to cut off the perimeter and force ball handlers to put the ball on the floor and take it to the paint. It's a similar strategy to what the Lakers used in the later '90's and early '00's. What's the similarity between those Lakers and these Magic? The big man in the middle. The Lakers had Shaq and the Magic have Howard. The Magic intend to cut off the perimeter, get active in passing lanes, use their strength to take players out of their rhythm and funnel everything to their imposing shot blocker in the middle. Now, these rules don't hold hard and true. For example, when the Magic played the Celtics, they were more than happy to let Rajon Rondo played with the ball all by himself at the top, but that is not the norm. The Magic could employ that strategy on Derek Fisher early in the shot clock though.
When the Lakers get into their initial offensive set, the Magic will likely back off of Fish because they'll be happy to see Fisher taking time off the shot clock or jacking up quick three's. Assuming Fish doesn't throw up the quick three, he's going to get the ball to either Kobe or Pau Gasol regularly. Not only are they they Lakers' best players, but they present mismatches for the Magic.
Courtney Lee is a decent defender, but he doesn't have the experience or savvy to match Kobe. Expect Kobe to get the ball early in hopes of exploiting this mismatch, but Lee will end up in early foul trouble, prompting Stan Van Gundy to go with Michael Pietrus, who can do a much better job on Kobe. Regardless of who's guarding Kobe though, the Lakers are going to look to keep his touches away from the middle of the court and closer towards the wings. From there, the Magic will have to go farther if they choose to double and then have farther to recover.
If the Magic do choose to double, they will likely do so with Hedo Turkoglu, who is often their help defender. This will leave Trevor Ariza open from the perimeter and if he gets the ball, he'll either have the opprtunity to shoot the three or get the ball to the free throw line. The Magic rarely use Howard as a part of the rotations so he can instead man the rim. This means that after the initial pass out of the double team, when the rest of the Magic are rotating, there is often space at the free throw line for the power forward to get the ball and face up in a dangerous triple-threat position. Whether that man is Lamar Odom or Pau Gasol, it could be the key to breaking the Magic's double team and forcing them to leave Kobe man-to-man.
The other man the Lakers will look to get the ball to is Pau Gasol, preferably on his favored left box. The first piece to establishing Pau in the offense will be for him to fight Howard for position. Howard is stronger than Pau and can force him away from his favorite spot. If that's the case, the Lakers won't be able to use Pau on the weakside of the triangle, like they did against Denver, and it would limit the Lakers' ability to tun the two-man game with Pau and Kobe. To get Pau the ball, the Lakers would have to use Pau on the strong side of the triangle. Using him on the strong side would allow him to establish position on his favored left block by moving from the weak side to the strong side. Once there, Pau can face up on Howard and look to get him in foul trouble with his crafty footwork and pump fakes. Howard has a tendency to bite on ball fakes and overplay on the initial move, which just so happens to play into Pau's strengths.
When Bynum is in the game and Rashard Lewis is guarding Pau, you can expect Pau to get a heavy dose of the ball. The Lakers will look to exploit this mismatch, but on the lower block double, should the Magic choose to use it, they may bring a big-to-big double with Howard doubling. This would require that Pau get rid of the ball quickly and good perimeter ball movement to get the ball to the weakside and take advantage of the vacated space on the block opposite to Pau.
The Magic's tight perimeter defense could cause issues for the Lakers getting the ball to Kobe and Pau though. Their pressure makes it difficult on ball handlers to complete entry passes and often, post players are forced to come away from the basket to catch the ball. The constant pressure also makes it necessary for quick ball movement. The Lakers' triangle offense is suited to this, but only if they are making the correct cuts and passes, which isn't always the case. If the Lakers aren't running their offense efficiently, the Magic will force them to pick up their dribble and toss the ball cross-court, where Orlando's size and strength will allow them to pick the ball off and head the other way for baskets.
Magic's Offense vs. Lakers' Defense
The Magic's offense versus the Lakers' defense is really two match-ups. There's the Magic's offense versus the Lakers' defense with Andrew Bynum and the Magic's offense versus the Lakers' defense without Andrew Bynum. Because Howard plays such an integral role in creating space for the Magic's outside shooters, as well as getting second-chance points when the opposing defense has been forced to switch earlier in the possession, Howard is the key to all. As a result, Andrew Bynum, the Lakers' best low post defender when he's playing well, is the key to all.
The Magic's offense isn't really an offense. The Lakers have an entire triangle offense with reads, cuts, timing, but the Magic basically have just two plays. There's the high screen and roll, which they prefer to run with Turkoglu and Howard, but do run with anyone, and the four guys stand at the three-point line to clear room for Howard. The pick and roll can present major problems for the Lakers because they have always had issues defending it. Howard is so explosive that any hedge on the part of Bynum or Gasol, will allow Howard a clear path to the hoop without giving his man a chance to recover. If the Lakers' bigs hedge and the four has to come over to deny Howard the ball, you're opening up Rashard Lewis in the corner. Neither is a very good result if you're the Lakers.
If the Lakers don't hedge, Turkoglu will be able to either pull up for a jumper or turn the corner. If he turns the corner at heads to the rim, he'll attract help from either the Lakers' five or four. If the five helps, Howard is open once again, but if the four helps, then Lewis is open in the corner. The best way to defend the ball is probably ot to hedge, use the five to help when Turkoglu turns the corner, slide the two under Howard and force the cross court pass, but that's a lot of moving parts that all have to be right on time. It'd be a heck of an accomplishment if the Lakers could pull that off.
When the Magic run their other play, the four guys at the three-point line and Howard on the block, the Lakers will have to make a decision. To double or not to double? If the Lakers choose not to double, then you're leaving either Bynum or Gasol alone on Howard. Bynum has a fighting chance to somewhat neutralize Howard. We've seen that pretty good low-post defenders can slow down Howard enough to cause problems for Orlando when the Magic run this play. Hello, Kendrick Perkins and the Celtics in the Eastern Semifinals. Is Bynum going to be able to neutralize Howard so the Lakers aren't forced to double though? It's doubtful, but he has a shot.
Gasol has no shot so if he is on Howard or Bynum isn't getting the job done, the Lakers will have to bring a double team. If they bring the double, they will likely bring Kobe because Courtney Lee or Michael Peitrus would be the least dangerous shooter on the floor (I can't imagine Pietrus continuing to shoot like he did against Cleveland). While not an outstanding passer, Howard is better than people give him credit for. He's not going to squeeze the ball into a small space to hit a cutter like an elite pasing big man can, but he recognizes the double team well and gets the ball safely back to the perimeter. Once back on the perimeter, each Magic player can knock down a jumper or take the ball to the rim, causing defenses to scramble. The Lakers are exceptionally long so their best shot may be to anticipate once the ball gets to the perimeter and instead of rotating all over the floor, a losing prospect against a team as versatile as Orlando. If they can anticpate well enough than they'll give up some open shots and easy buckets, but will be able to get their hands on balls and force upwards of 18 turnovers.
What makes Orlando so difficult to defense is how versatile they are. Sure, they like to run the high pick and roll with Turkoglu and Howard, but they can run it with any two players on the floor at any time and sometimes do. How do you defense a pick and roll with Turkoglu and Lewis, both excellent shooters who can put the ball on the floor? If the Lakers give Bynum and Gasol extended time together, you can bet that the Magic will go to the pick and roll with those two so they can get Pau to guard Lewis on the perimeter with Lewis moving. They can run the pick and roll with Alston too, a play that has torched Fish all playoffs long. Remember the big games Alston had against the Lakers last season with Fish guarding him?
The Lakers best bet may be to just let Howard get his. Sure, he could get 30-35 points, but as long as he's not getting the Lakers' bigs in foul trouble in the process, it may be the way LA goes. Let Howard get his and stay home all over the perimeter, forcing the Magic to beat you from inside the arc. That only works if you can keep your best players out of foul trouble and on the floor though. When Bynum goes out and Odom comes in, the Lakers will match up far better defensively. Odom is probably the toughest match up Lewis will see all season long because he may be the only player in the league who can match his size, length and quickness. That match up though will give Howard one-on-one matchups on rebounds though because Odom will be at the arc defending Lewis. If the Lakers can control Howard's second chance opportunities they should be able to defend the perimeter, but if they have to cheat to get to the boards (Howard averaged six offensive boards against the Lakers this season), the Magic will find themselves with open three-point attempts. In the end, the Magic force you to play the ultimate game of pick your poison. Who do you pick?