Blueprints for victory in Game 5
Three ways for Lakers and Magic to prevail on Sunday night
Kobe Bryant must continue to play facilitator early and closer late
The Magic will need Rashard Lewis to regain his form
The Magic cannot help the Lakers with turnovers and missed free throws
ORLANDO -- It is clear Stan Van Gundy doesn't think much of experience. He said so in a number of animated ways after the Lakers' improbable Game 4 win when the two most experienced players on the court -- Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher -- made the key passes and shots that put Los Angeles one win away from the NBA title.
As much as Van Gundy won't admit, however, experience has been the tipping point in what has been a tight series and the first to feature two overtime games since the Lakers and Celtics went the distance 25 years ago. Maybe if Courtney Lee wasn't a rookie, he makes that game-winning alley-oop in Game 2. Maybe if Dwight Howard wasn't 23 and playing in his first Finals, he makes one of two free throws with 11 seconds left to seal Game 4. Maybe if Van Gundy had coached this far into the post-season before, he'd know not to mess with the rotation that got him there.
But you can't change the past, you can only learn from it and the Lakers learned a lot from last year's Finals disappointment. Bryant and Fisher in particular have learned a lifetime's worth playing in six Finals this decade. It's one of the main reasons why the Lakers have a commanding 3-1 series lead and can win the franchise's 15th NBA championship with one more win. Heading into Sunday's Game 5, here are three things Lakers need to do to beat the Magic and three things Orlando has to do to extend the series.
Three ways the Lakers can clinch
1. Kobe Bryant plays the role of facilitator as well as playmaker.
It may be easier to focus on the negatives in Bryant's game during the Finals. After all, that's usually the case with the most polarizing figure in the league. Yes, he missed 20 shots in Game 4 and didn't hit the game's biggest baskets. Sure he had four turnovers in Game 3 and failed to be the closer with the game tied late. But the fact remains that Bryant is on pace for one of the best Finals ever, at least statistically, and it has just as much to do with his passing than his scoring.
Bryant is averaging 33 points and 8 assists during this year's Finals, something only Michael Jordan and Jerry West have done over the course of a Finals series. In fact, Bryant has recorded at least eight assists in six straight playoff games, which has only been done by one other Laker -- Magic Johnson. It was Bryant's Magic-like turnaround pass to Pau Gasol in the paint that brought the Lakers to within three points in Game 4. It was then his pass to a wide-open Fisher beyond the arc after he drew the defense into the paint that broke a late tie in overtime. If he can play his role as a facilitator early and then play his role as a closer late as he did in winning the Western Conference title at Denver, the Lakers will be returning to Los Angeles with the Larry O'Brien trophy.
"As a passer he's pretty remarkable," said Fisher. "He has an ability to get himself in and out of trouble with his vision that I think improves his ability to dominate offensively. He reads situations very well and he's able to take double-teams and score but he's also reading where double-teams are coming from and who's coming. If he chose to pass more, he would easily average Chris Paul-like assist numbers."
2. The frontline, especially Lamar Odom, stays out of foul trouble.
One of the biggest reasons why the Lakers were in the position they were late in Game 4 (down by five with 32 seconds left) was that Gasol, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum had each picked up two fouls by the end of the first quarter for the first time this year. Odom and Bynum had five fouls apiece early in the fourth quarter. None of the Lakers' frontline players were able to get in rhythm as seldom-used D.J. Mbenga and Josh Powell were forced into the game.
The Lakers are at their best when Gasol is active at both ends of the floor and Odom is involved in the offense early. Odom's play sparked the Lakers' four-game winning streak in the playoffs (17.3 points and 11 rebounds) while it was his lack of production in the last two games (10 points and 3.5 rebounds) that nearly had this series tied 2-2.
"I'm trying to be aggressive, but it was too bad in (Game 4) I didn't get to play much because of some tough foul calls but I don't care," said Odom. "I'm just trying to get the ball and go -- attack and get the rebound and take it as far as I can. Sometimes it's not going to show in the statistics but I'm trying to keep myself on the court especially at the end of the game since me and Pau are usually on the floor then. I just got to stay away from stupid fouls and stay on the court so my presence can be felt."
3. The Lakers control the tempo of the game early and lead at the half.
The ominous statistics were flying at the Magic's young players from all sides after Game 4. No team has won a championship down 3-1. No team has ever beaten a Phil Jackson-coached squad that won the first game of a series. The Lakers haven't lost three games in a row all season. As much as they are trying to put on a strong face, the Magic know the chances of them winning this series are slim.
If the Lakers take control of the game early the same way they did against Denver when most assumed the Nuggets would extend the series, the Lakers will suck the life out of Amway Arena and soon out of the Magic players as well. In Denver, the Lakers had a five-point lead after the first quarter and a 13-point advantage at the half and it only grew as the Nuggets realized the Lakers weren't going to let up in a close-out situation as they did against Houston.
"We were in the same situation the Magic were in last year (against the Celtics) and we know how they're going to come out so we know we have to be better early," Trevor Ariza said. "We want to win it now, but we know it's not over yet. We got one more win to go and if we want to win in Orlando, we can't get big-headed and think the series is over and that the other team is going to lay down. If we want it we have to take it from them."
Three ways the Magic survive
1. Rafer Alston is allowed to play his game and isn't benched for entire quarters.
If there's one Magic player that wouldn't mind this series being over sooner rather than later, it might be Alston, who has been toyed with by Van Gundy since Jameer Nelson's return. Nelson has not only split minutes with Alston, who has been the team's starting point guard since February and helped them reach the Finals, but Van Gundy has been wildly inconsistent with how he distributes the minutes between his point guards.
In Game 1, Alston sat out the entire second quarter despite Orlando having the lead in a game that quickly got out of hand. In Game 2, Van Gundy simply ditched the idea of playing point guards altogether late in the game. And in Game 4 Alston didn't see the floor again after the third quarter, going through nine heat packs on the bench as he watched Nelson score only two points and allow Fisher ample room to knock down the biggest shot of the game.
"One turnover" said Alston, still amazed at being pulled after his sole turnover of the game in the third quarter where he accidentally fed the ball to Gasol in the paint. "I'm one of the better guards in this league on assist-to-turnover (ratio) and I got pulled after one turnover. I thought I had five. I'm not even kidding. I thought maybe I was playing bad but I looked at the box score and I had one turnover and that was it. What can I say? He's coaching the team the way he wants."
Alston and Van Gundy haven't had a face-to-face meeting since Game 1 and Alston doesn't plan on having one anytime soon with the coach either.
"I'm not good at those one-on-one meeting because I might blow up," said Alston. "I understand he's coaching but he might say something that doesn't make sense to me and I may not like that, so we'll leave it at that."
2. Rashard Lewis reverts back to being the Magic's leading scorer.
As much as some would like to see Howard get more touches, the simple fact is the Lakers have drawn up a blueprint for containing Howard with their big frontline. Howard's limited offensive repetoire and spotty free-throw shooting limit him as a No. 1 option. The fix for the Magic is to get Lewis more involved.
When Orlando got blown out by 25 points in Game 1, Lewis only scored eight points on 10 shots. He was the team's leading scorer in Game 2 and 3, averaging 27.5 points on 17.5 shots. Lewis, however, reverted back to his Game 1 form on Thursday, scoring just six points on 10 shots. Lewis needs to be involved in the offense more and take at least 14 shots with about six of those coming from beyond arc for the Magic's offense to run effectively.
"They didn't defend me differently. It was just that Turk [Hedo Turkoglu] was playing great and Dwight was playing well and I didn't get very many shots and I didn't want to force the issue," said Lewis. "I know I need to play better, but I don't want to force the issue on the offensive end of the floor if there's no need to."
3. The Magic take care of the ball and hit their free throws.
The only solace that the Magic can take from Game 4 is that they were in position to beat the Lakers despite shooting 59.5-percent from the free-throw line (22-of-37), missing seven in the fourth quarter alone, and committing 17 turnovers, with seven coming from Howard alone. It's hard enough to beat the Lakers when you are playing your best, but it's almost impossible to do it when you essentially give the game away.
"They're a great team and if we have a lot of turnovers and don't hit our free throws, the Lakers will take advantage of that," said Lee. "The Lakers like to get out and run and get points in the open court on fast breaks and in transition so they capitalize on every turnover. Add to that us missing free throws and it's surprising that we had the lead towards the end. We can't always count on that though. We can't keep giving them those kinds of chances if we're going to win."
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