61 games ago. Both the Lakers and Magic have played 61 games since they met at Staple’s January 16. A lot of analysts are pointing to those 2 regular season matchups between Kobe’s team and Dwight’s team as some sort of defining harbinger of what may happen starting Thursday in the NBA Finals. The truth is that those games just don’t matter very much.
In their first meeting on December 20, it was the second game of a back-to-back for the Lakers, and they had lost at Miami the day before. It was the second home game in a 4-game stretch at Amway Arena for the Magic, and they were coming off of a win over feeble Sacramento two days earlier. So scheduling favored Orlando from the get-go.
As for the game itself, the Lakers romped to a 58-49 halftime lead, but the Magic outscored LA 36-26 in the 3Q en route to a 106-103 victory. Kobe went off for 41 points on 14-31 and 11-11 from the free throw line, but Dwight Howard went to the line 11 times in the 4Q, making 8 (great for him). After the game, Stan Van Gundy said, “I don't think anybody is coming to me for” advice “about defending Kobe. We better keep winning games, so I can stay employed." For KB’s part, he explained that "they had three guys over at me every time [in the second half]. When I get going, they send everybody.” Kobe missed a shot at the buzzer that would have forced OT.
Orlando had a healthy Jameer Nelson for the first regular season matchup, and he was a stud with 27 on 11-16 including 4-6 from beyond the arc. The Magic have hinted that Nelson is recovering from his shoulder injury very quickly and could be ready for Game 1, but that seems like subterfuge to me. All along, Orlando has been saying, “Out for the year. No chance.” Then, a few days before the finals the 27yo from St. Joe’s could be back on the floor? I’ll believe it when I see it, and, even if he does make it back, how effective will he really be?
In the only other regular season meeting between the Eastern Conference and Western Conference Champions, it was again Jameer, scoring 15 of his 28 points in the final 12 minutes. Dwight Howard delivered a double-double with 25 points and 20 boards, and Kobe went for a triple-double with 28pts-13reb-11ast, but again failed at the end of the game, missing 2 jumpers. The Lakers lost 109-103 on a Friday night in February in Los Angeles.
In his postgame press conference, point guard Nelson said, "We're flying under the radar. Noboby's really noticing us," Nelson said. "At the same time, it's fine with us. Everybody in this locker room knows the type of team we have and knows what we’re capable of. So as long as we continue to win, we'll be where we want to be at the end of the year. Every year our team has gotten better. We're definitely a lot more mature because of our playoff experience. But we haven't reached our goal, and that's to win a championship." Bryant was complimentary of Jameer. “They made some tough shots. He [Nelson] made some really, really huge, tough shots. He's playing at an all-star level. But we didn't do a good job corralling [Howard], staying on top of him. We let him catch the ball deep and finish."
The reason this game may be a bit squirrelly, again, is that Nelson carried the load down the stretch, and that in its previous game at Sacramento, the Magic set the all-time league record for most 3’s in a game with 23. They shot extraordinarily well against the Lakers as well with 12-28 from beyond the arc, but they were also incredibly confident coming off the record-setting performance. Plus, they had 2 full days off in Los Angeles to get ready for the Lakers.
Obviously, Orlando is coming into the finals with certitude as they won a Game 7 at Boston to oust the defending champions and then eliminated King James and the vaunted Cavs with a methodical cold-bloodedness in 6 games. Anybody who watched knows it wasn’t that close.
I’m not guaranteeing a Lakers win, but home court clearly tilts the game their way. Some things to draw from the regular season matchups.
- The Lakers led both game at the half – by 9 in the game at Orlando and by 8 in the game at Staple’s.
- The Magic took control of both games in the 3Q outscoring LA by a combined 71-54
- Kobe has had extraordinary success against the Magic this year. Nobody was able to stop him. He came close to averaging a triple-double in the pair of contests with over 27ppg, 10.5reb and 7ast.
- Derek Fisher averaged 18ppg against Orlando with only 1 turnover in almost 83 minutes.
- The Magic will bomb, bomb, bomb. They took 58 treys against LA, making 41% of them.
- Orlando misses a lot of free throws. Howard was only 19-31 in the 2 games with the Lakers, and they shot only 64% as a team.
Then there are those 3 shots at the end of regulation that Kobe missed in the losses. Is banking on Kobe missing a big shot any way to approach the NBA Finals? He will make them. Clutchness is in Kobe’s DNA. This close to a ring, if it comes down to 1 shot, I’ll bet on Kobe every day of the week.
During the Denver series, Chauncey Billups said, “There’s regular season basketball, and there’s playoff basketball. Then there’s playoff basketball and 4th quarter playoff basketball.” The Nuggets weren’t ready for that…yet. Now it gets even tougher. Is Orlando ready for “4th quarter in the NBA Finals basketball?” I say the Lakers are.