Jun 5, 2009

How the Magic can Win this Series

SVG's Game One Surprise: Tony Battie?

Game One Reaction

After last night's bludgeoning, few have given the Magic a chance to win this series. Sure, the commentators have gone out of their way to remind us that this is just "one game," and that more often than not a beatdown does not carry over to the next game. To me, this is a clever way of promoting the series and keeping viewers interested. After all, disinterested fans lead to poor ratings and the commentators are employed by the networks who care about that sort of thing.

That said, this series is far from over. I know the Magic were outshot, outdefended, and just plain outclassed in game one. We all witnessed just how good a focused Laker team really is, and the Magic's weaknesses were certainly exposed (namely the lack of a second post player and too much reliance on outside shooting). Clearly, if the Lakers continue to play this way the series could be over in four games. But as we have seen in these playoffs, the Lakers don't play this way every game. It seems every game, our impression of the Lakers flipflops between heartless and determined. Phil Jackson's Jekyll & Hyde analogy wasn't too far off.

Unfortunately for the Magic, both versions of the Lakers are better than most teams in the NBA. Even on down nights, they have the talent and experience to keep things close. The Magic must play near-perfect basketball to beat this juggernaut, and even then I'm not sure it can be done in a seven-game series. Nevertheless, I've put together a gameplan for Orlando to shock the world and win this series:

1. Feed the Beast, Even When in Foul Trouble
The Magic must feed the ball to Howard early and often. Regardless of the foul situation, they must be persistent on this front. Nobody on the Lakers has the strength to guard him down low, despite the common belief that Howard has no post moves. Bynum is the Lakers' bulkiest threat, and Howard has eaten him alive when given the opportunity.

I know it's tempting for Stan Van Gundy to monitor his star's fouls. Much has been made of Howard's foul troubles in these playoffs and the detrimental effect it has on the team. I know he picked up a few offensive fouls in game one and feeding him the ball increases the likelihood of said foul trouble. I know the Lakers are sagging and positioning help defenders to take charges when Howard makes his predictable spin move.

I understand how these factors would play into SVG's strategy, but I still don't agree with his cautious approach. I think he needs to throw all these fears out the window and take his chances. The Magic aren't going to win this series playing scared. They aren't going to win this series holding back Howard, as he is the only significant positional advantage that the Magic have in this series. To win, the Magic must force-feed their star until he fouls out. At worst, this would occur in 25 minutes of court time. This would eventually force double-teams from the Lakers and would open up the three-point line for Orlando's shooters, who didn't have good looks at the basket in game one. It would also force the Lakers into foul trouble of their own.

2. Mix Things Up
When Bynum picks up his inevitable second foul midway through the first quarter, put Gortat in the game alongside Howard. Slide Lewis to the three and Turkoglu to the two. Odom would then be forced to cover Gortat and Gasol may pick up some cheap fouls trying to contain Howard. Lewis would have easier looks against shorter defenders (without Odom guarding him), and Kobe would have to exert more of an effort on defense against Turkoglu than he does against Courtney Lee.

In game one, it was as if the Magic were playing reactive basketball instead of forcing the Lakers' hand. They were reluctant to play Gortat and Howard at the same time for any significant stretches of the game, and their best attempt to match the Lakers' size was by inserting seldom-used Tony Battie into the game in the second quarter. Battie looked lost; it was as if he 1) hadn't picked up a basketball in 8 months, 2) forgot that he can't shoot midrange jumpers and/or 3) knew he wouldn't play again and wanted to get up as many shots as possible in the meantime.

3) Revise the Jameer Nelson Experiment
Nelson looked great for the first three minutes in the second quarter, before his I.R. legs showed themselves. I'm not really sure what SVG was trying to do by playing Jameer the entire second quarter, even as the Lakers mounted a run. He must have not noticed that his team actually led after the first quarter with Alston at the point.

I'm not necessarily opposed to tinkering with lineups (even in the finals), but I think SVG should change his approach with Nelson. I don't agree with Mark Jackson's assessment that the Magic should either play him starter minutes or bench him. I think Nelson brings some different elements to their offense that can still be valuable in shorter stints. He should play the true backup role (15-18 minutes) rather than instituting a platoon system at the point. The Magic made it this far with Alston at the reins, and Skip is the type of player who needs to get quantity minutes to find a rhythm. By playing each of these guys equal minutes, they both become less effective.

4) Increase Pietrus' Minutes
Mikael Pietrus shot horribly in game one and did little to slow Kobe Bryant. However, my observation was that the other Magic defenders did a worse job on Kobe and Pietrus was one of the few Magic players who didn't look scared by the Staples lights. Pietrus showed us in the Cleveland series that he is capable of hitting big shots and his early-game misses against L.A. in game one didn't cause him to shy away from open looks later in the game. I've gotta believe that his shots will start to fall soon enough, and this could provide the scoring spark the Magic desperately need.

5) Play the Zone
The Magic should insert a pseudo two-three zone or box-and-one defense for part of game two. While the Lakers have a few players with decent range, I'd rather take my chances on Luke Walton's or Trevor Ariza's three-point shooting than on Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom in the post. Much has been made of the Lakers' 55-41 advantage on the glass in game one, but that was mostly due to Orlando's poor shooting (30%!) leading to defensive rebounds for L.A. The real problem was L.A.'s 56 points in the paint. The Magic don't have the quickness on the perimeter or the size down low (outside of foul-prone Howard) to keep the Lakers away from the rim, so a straight man-to-man defense is not going to work. If Orlando's players can find bodies when shots go up, the zone could be very effective in frustrating L.A. If nothing else it would give the Lakers a different look, one that they probably haven't prepared for.


KneeJerkNBA said...

On point. The only strategy I might contest is playing Gortat and Howard together. Not enough footspeed or shooting range.

Walton's Wisdom said...

Not a bad point, especially considering Kenyon Martin's inability to make a jumpshot consistently is what propelled the Lakers to the WCF victory (in my opinion), and Luis Scola's ability to hit the jumper was one of the main reasons Houston made round two a series. Interestingly enough, however, SVG did deploy a Howard-Gortat lineup for significant stretches of the game tonight. I thought it was fairly effective in limiting the easy looks L.A. got in the paint in game one.