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Preview: NBA Finals Game 3

In the playoffs, the Lakers have yet to win three straight games against a single opponent. Meanwhile, the Magic have yet to lose three straight games at all. That doesn't seem to bode well for the Lakers.

The one caveat to this line of thinking, of course, is that the Lakers are actually on a four-game winning streak. They came against different opponents, but their two wins to finish of Denver and their two wins to start off this series make four straight. Before Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals, their playoff best was two straight. The argument, therefore, could be made that these Lakers are better now (and recently) than they were earlier in the playoffs, so earlier trends are limited in their usefulness. The team that hasn't lost since May 25 could easily continue that trend, rather than the trend of inconsistency it was known for prior to May 25.

In any case, a couple days ago I made the case that Game 2 was a must-win game for the Magic. Why? Because winning all three in Orlando is extremely unlikely (because winning three straight against any team at this level is nearly impossible), as is winning both of the final two in Los Angeles (because the Lakers play extremely well at home, especially under pressure). Winning Game 2 would have alleviated the pressure of having to do the improbable; unfortunately for them, they lost Game 2, so now they will have to accomplish one of these two very difficult tasks.

Can they pull it off? Here's a hint: No. But let's break it down anyways.

The Lakers have not lost three straight games since acquiring Pau Gasol. That is how good that trade made them. Consider, however, that during the year and a half since Gasol was acquired, numerous circumstances have occurred that do not exist today. The Lakers have suffered injuries – most notably Andrew Bynum (twice), but also Gasol himself on a couple of occasions, for shorter stints. Kobe Bryant has played through injuries. They have played back-to-back games on the road, and have been exhausted at times (including recently, against very tough competition). And they have at times lacked motivation, pacing themselves for when it really mattered. None of that is true today, as the Lakers prepare for the first of three games in Orlando.

What makes Orlando more likely to hand the Lakers three straight defeats than any other team (or combination of teams)? Nothing. Sure, they play great defense (thanks for that, Dex). Yes, they have the ability to light it up from distance, scoring insane amounts of points while their defense digs in at the other end. But they've also just lost two games in a row to the Lakers – not the sign of a team capable of dominating Kobe and crew.

On the other hand, the Lakers have beaten Orlando both in a dominant blowout and a close, overtime nailbiter. This is significant, in that it shows the Lakers' ability to produce a win under a variety of circumstances. It is also nothing new. Remember that more than once, Denver played better than L.A. by every measure, but the Lakers emerged with the win. In the last three rounds, the Lakers have also shown that they can win games playing their own style, or their opponents' – contrary to conventional wisdom, which says that the team that can force the other to play its game will win. The Lakers can win even while playing their opponent's game.

Now, consider that while the Magic emerged from the first three rounds with very impressive results, they didn't necessarily come by them easily. Many of their games, including most of their games against the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals, were very close games, decided in the final seconds. The Magic did very well in those games, overall, showing an impressive ability to make the right decisions and come up with big plays with the game on the line. Unfortunately for the Magic, the Lakers have shown that same ability to deliver in close games. Game 2, therefore, was significant in that the first taste of such a game ended with a clear Lakers advantage. It's a very small sample size, but it may indicate that the Lakers are the only team better than the Magic in close games.

If the Magic are the same team they have been throughout these playoffs – and by and large, I believe they are – then I expect them to come back strong and respond with winning efforts, but not with blowout performances.  As has become customary for the Magic, these games will be close – and since they're playing a team that performs extremely well in such situations, a winning effort will not necessarily equate to a win. This is something the Nuggets know very well. Considering that many of the Magic's wins have come in extremely close games, and that the Lakers just showed an ability to execute like a well-oiled machine while frustrating the Magic in such close-game situations, I would be nervous as a Magic fan. The Magic's tendency to find themselves in close-game situations over and over again may just play right into the Lakers' hands.

I'll be honest with you: I have serious doubts as to whether the Magic can even win two during the three-game stretch in Orlando. Not because they aren't good enough – mark my words. Not, this is more about the Lakers. I simply don't see them losing two out of three games. Do you? Let's explore the possibilities:

  • If the Lakes win Game 3, they may lose Game 4, but they will not lose both Games 4 and 5. I don't expect this team to lose two straight games at any point, especially if it can taste the championship.
  • If the Magic win Game 3, the Lakers will win Game 4. Like I said, I don't expect the Lakers to lose two in a row at any point. They are simply too good for that, and they bounce back from losses far too well.
  • If the Magic win Game 3 and the lakers win Game 4, then Game 5 is a toss up. Still, I would expect the Game 3 loss to still be pretty fresh for the Lakers, and combined with the possibility of winning the championship with a final victory, I would be surprised if the Lakers lose Game 5 in this scenario.

In fact, let me go on record right now as saying I expect the Lakers to win a potential Game 5. If they win Game 3, the Magic would have to win Game 4 to force a Game 5, and like I said, the Lakers bounce back very well. If the Magic win Game 3, the third scenario above will occur.

Have I just talked myself into adjusting my prediction down to a Lakers championship in five games? Let me put it this way: Orlando is a hell of a team, and very tough, so I won't be the least bit surprised if the series comes back to Los Angeles (in which case I unhesitatingly stand by my six-game prediction). Still, I would say I am leaning towards expecting a Game 5 resolution to this series. Let's say I'm 60/40 on it. Maybe 70/30 at best.

Keys to Game 3 for the Lakers: Rebounding, points in the paint, and defending the three. The Lakers dominated the glass in Game 1, and then the Magic dominated it in Game 2. Now, part of the Lakers weak offensive rebounding effort in Game 2 can be explained by their commitment to preventing any fast break points for the Magic. They kept three guys back almost at all times, and were very successful in essentially eliminating the fast break or early offense from Orlando's offense. Nonetheless, a better rebounding effort, particularly on defense (where the Lakers can afford to hang back a bit), will prevent second-chance points and go a long way towards a Lakers win.

In Game 1, the Lakers attacked the paint relentlessly. In Game 2, they took far too many jumpshots. In Game 3, they need to return to the original game plan of getting the ball into the paint. They have numbers down low – they have a host of inside threats, while Dwight Howard is really the only defender capable of holding his own defensively. If the Lakers take more shots in the paint, their offense will run better, and their defense will struggle less – even when they miss those close shots.

Finally, they need to play the three. I mean this in two ways. First, they need to play better defense on the three-point shot. As Phil Jackson noted after Game 2, Orlando's percentage from long range wasn't great, but the numbers belie the fact that the long ball was often what kept them in the game. However, I also mean that the Lakers need to focus on the Magic's Big Three of Howard, Hedo Turkoglu, and Rashard Lewis. Let the role players beat the Lakers (they won't); force the team leaders to struggle. They're doing a good job with Howard, and also with Turkoglu, but they slipped on Lewis in Game 2. In particular, he was given too much room in the second quarter, when he scored 18 of the Magic's 20 points. Memo to Lamar Odom: Lewis is lethal from three-point range, but his handle is great, and his drives to the rim are soft. Stay close to him, run him off the three-point line, and trust that when he gets by you, the help will be there.

The Lakers also need to limit the ways in which they double Dwight Howard. Bringing the double too hard or too early only opens up shooters, and in truth, it's not necessary. As several people have pointed out recently, Howard has a terrible habit of keeping the ball down low until he goes into his shot. The only double should be a soft hedge by the perimeter defender – soft enough to easily recover to the outside shooter, but close enough that when Howard brings the ball around or begins his move, the perimeter defender can easily step in and swipe at the ball. Also, don't double until Howard is about to go into his shot. Once he starts his shooting motion, he's not capable of effectively changing his mind and passing out to an open teammate. At that point, he is committed, and the Lakers can safely use that last moment to attack him without fearing the open three-pointer.

It will be interesting to see how the well the Lakers play in Game 3. Some have suggested that at this level, it is less a question of effort than it is of execution. I say the two are related. I was talking with Andrew Kamenetzky the other night, and he made a great point, saying that it really takes a lot of effort and energy to play the right way – continuously swinging the ball from side to side, working the inside-out game, cutting and making the extra passes. It is much easier to settle for jumpshots than it is to execute the offense the way it is meant to be executed. As such, when you see the Lakers settling for jumpshots, keep in mind that they're not just spacing out and making stupid decisions; they are actually making the easier play, rather than the better one.

It is for this reason that I still believe effort to be a factor. The heart and the energy will be there, and the effort on defense will mostly be there, but the decision to pass up a good shot in order to create a great shot can be the difference between 98% effort and 100% effort. At this level, we need 110% effort. If players are putting the energy into staying active on offense, moving without the ball, spacing the floor, making cuts, and then making crisp passes to leverage all of this hard work, then the execution will follow. Execution is not independent from effort, such that a team can play with great effort but poor execution. It is the physical effort to put in the work of running the offense and staying active even when the ball is coming to you, along with the mental effort of making the right decisions and being smart with the ball, that produces execution.

Personally, I see Game 3 as a completely unpredictable toss-up. Conventional wisdom would say that Orlando is the team with their backs against the wall, and will thus be the team playing with greater desperation. But knowing these Lakers, do any of you want to suggest that a team could be hungrier than they are now, even up 2-0? At the same time, I believe this team has reached a point where it is capable of detecting problems and making adjustments very quickly, so I wouldn't be surprised at all to see the Lakers review the reasons for their struggles last in Game 2 and fix those problems in Game 3.

Prediction? Game 3 is 50/50, but at least the result will tell us a lot about Game 4.

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