Friday, June 5, 2009

Why there's still hope for Orlando

It was bad enough for the Orlando Magic that that seemingly infallible, smartest guy in the room, leader of the free world fella picked the Lakers in six.
Then they actually took the floor.After the Lakers administered a 100-75, Globetrotters vs. Generals clinic in humiliation on Thursday night, President Barack Obama's pick would seem to give the Magic more credit than they deserve. Two wins? How?
The Lakers destroyed Orlando in the paint (54-22). L.A. outrebounded the Magic 55-41. Dwight Howard scored one basket in 35 minutes.
Then there's the matter of Phil Jackson being 43-0 all-time in playoff series in which he wins Game 1.
Somewhere David Stern's dyspepsia at not having his Kobe-LeBron Final just got a whole lot worse at the prospect of a 4-0 romp with no drama.
But amid the gloom and doom and shovelfuls of dirt being heaped on the Magic, there are several reasons for some audacious hope in the Orlando locker room.
Jameer Nelson
So much for "definitely not playing in Game 1" and "probably not playing in the series." Despite various reports out of Orlando that Jameer Nelson wouldn't play in the Finals "under any circumstances," the All-Star point guard played 23 minutes Thursday night.Yes, he ended up 3-of-9, including a couple of airballs that looked like they were shot by a guy coming off a shoulder injury who hadn't played a meaningful game in four months. But before his legs gave out, Nelson sparked a 9-4 mini-run with three assists and a bucket that gave Orlando its biggest — albeit brief — lead, 33-28. Nelson was a deserving All-Star this season but missed the game after suffering a torn labrum the week before the All-Star break. He may not be 100 percent, but the mere fact that the team that dispatched the defending champion Celtics and top-seeded Cavaliers in consecutive series just added an All-Star to its rotation will make a difference before this series is over.
If the Magic are to follow the '94 and '95 Houston Rockets' formula of throwing the ball into the post to a guy who demands a double team and then spreading the floor with shooters, all four guys on the perimeter have to be able to knock down the three. The weak link for Orlando in that strategy has been Rafer Alston, who shot 33.8 from behind the arc during the regular season. In the Magic's six losses against the Celtics (three), Cavs (two) and Lakers (one), Rafer Alston has gone 4-for-21 from behind the arc (19 percent). Nelson shot 45.3 percent from behind the arc during the season and — if he gets his legs back — gives the Magic a much more consistent deep threat at the point.
Marcin Gortat
Go ahead, laugh it up. You think it's hilarious that the Magic might be pinning their hopes on the Polish Hammer. Well, Gortat was pretty much the only Magic player who could hold his head high after the butt-whipping the Lakers dished out Thursday. He played 20 minutes, scored four points, grabbed eight rebounds, blocked four shots and even had two steals. In the 20 minutes Gortat was on the court, Orlando was outscored by three points. In the 28 minutes he was on the bench, the Magic were blitzed by 22.
Faced with obvious matchup problems posed by L.A.'s three-headed Gasol-Bynum-Odom post monster, Stan Van Gundy used the ample garbage time in Game 1 to play Gortat and Howard together down the stretch and we shouldn't be surprised if we see them together for significant minutes in Game 2.
The 6-foot-11 Gortat can play. Though limited to only 12.6 minutes per game as Howard's backup this season, his per-48 numbers were 14.4 points, 17.1 rebounds and 3.2 blocks. Those numbers were borne out in his lone game as a starter in these playoffs when he played 40 productive minutes (11 points, 15 rebounds) as the Magic closed out the Sixers in the first round with Howard serving a one-game suspension.

The Game 1 Blowout
If you're going to lose Game 1 on the road in the Finals, better to get blown out than lose at the buzzer. The two previous times a team has won Game 1 of the Finals by more than 20 points, it lost Game 2.
As Van Gundy astutely pointed out in casting for good omens after an awful night, we all remember how the 1985 Finals turned out after the Celtics began things with the 148-114 Memorial Day Massacre of the Lakers. L.A. won Game 2, 109-102, and went on to win the series in six.
In 1992, the Bulls destroyed the Blazers by 33 in Game 1, and even though Chicago would go on to win the series in six, Portland won Game 2 in overtime.
Though it may pain him to think about his exit from Miami, Van Gundy can also take solace in the Heat's 2006 Finals performance. After losing Games 1 and 2 by double digits to the Mavericks, the Heat stormed back to take the series in six games.
Getting blown out is much better than losing the opening game of a championship series in backbreaking fashion like the Magic did in 1995. Nick Anderson missed four straight free throws with Orlando leading by three late, and Kenny Smith forced overtime with a 3-pointer. The Rockets won that game and swept the series.
The Magic Can't Play Any Worse
There is nothing as demoralizing in a playoff series as playing well and losing. That did not happen to the Magic in Game 1.
Orlando was atrocious on Thursday. The Magic starters made a mere 11 field goals (Kobe made 16). They shot 11-for-46, a staggering 23.9 percent. Courtney Lee went 3-for-10 and had the best shooting percentage of any Orlando starter.
Things got only slightly better when Van Gundy went to his bench. Normally reliable Tony Battie came in and threw up two of the ugliest bricks imaginable. Mickael Pietrus missed his first five shots.
The bench, however, did help get the Magic up to 29.9 percent shooting from the game, including a comical 27.8 percent on two-point field goal attempts.
Orlando will not shoot that poorly again in Game 2.
Fish and Luke
And while the Magic will not shoot under 30 percent in Game 2, it's also a pretty safe bet that Derek Fisher and Luke Walton will not combine to shoot 72.7 percent in 56 hugely productive minutes.
Fisher and Walton have been two of the weakest links in the Lakers' rotation with Fish shooting 35.6 percent and Walton shooting 36.9 percent. But on Thursday night, Fisher went 4-for-6, including a 3-pointer, and Walton went 4-for-5. Between them, they made only three fewer field goals than the Magic's entire starting lineup.
Everything went right for the Lakers in Game 1 while everything rattled out for the Magic.
L.A. fans may wish their team had preserved a couple of those good bounces for Game 2 and beyond.

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