Scout's Take: Finals breakdown
Kobe Bryant's willingness to credit teammates shows improved maturity
Lakers may try to use Dwight Howard's aggressiveness to draw fouls
Orlando can expect to see Lakers employ zone defense at times in Finals
SI.com's Ian Thomsen spoke with an NBA advance scout to break down the Magic-Lakers Finals matchup.
3 Key Lakers
1. Kobe Bryant. All of those guys who were in the Olympics last summer got a lot of good out of being part of it. Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Kobe -- they all got it, that there's more to it than just them playing great and their team coming along behind them and if their team doesn't come along, then just lambaste them. No, that's not how it's done. You need to give your teammates a little bit of credit when they deserve it or need it, and Kobe is showing improvement and maturity in that area. You can see Kobe getting genuinely excited from the bench and pulling for these guys when they're out there. You can see the camaraderie and chemistry is much better.
He's also better than ever as a playmaker. He reads defenses so well that he can be going 100 mph and still make an effective play. There's no question he's thinking to score first, but at the same time he's reading the help defense. In other words, when he's putting the ball down to go to the rim, he's saying, 'You've got to stop me, and when you do try to stop me, I'm going to make the right read' -- as opposed to the old Kobe, which was, I'm going to the basket and the only way I'm passing is if I'm flat-out stopped. He's a much more willing passer now.
At 30, he's not quite the lively athlete he used to be. I don't think he's reached the stage of Michael Jordan near the end of his time in Chicago. Let's put it this way: Let's say the younger Kobe used to rely on his athleticism to be better than anyone else 40 times a game, or 10 times a period. Now that he's older, he might be able to do that two times a period. LeBron James, as a current example, might be able to go high to block that shot, and he's so young and athletic that he can then turn around and make a similar athletic play at the offensive end. Kobe, though, might make the athletic play at one end of the floor but he's not going to be able to turn around and instantly make another sensational play. Instead, he's going to need a few possessions to get that bounce back. Michael, year by year, learned to play that way, to pick his battles and his moments of grandeur. He could still do things you didn't see anybody else doing, but he wasn't able to do them over and over again every time down the floor. That's where Kobe is now.
I love Kobe; he's a flat-out warrior and one of the most fierce competitors in the team concept I've ever seen. When he says winning the championship means so much more to him than winning the MVP, I truly, truly believe him. There's not even a question in my mind that he really means it.
2. Pau Gasol. Not the most physical player, obviously, but is he soft? Absolutely not. No way. He is going to beat you with finesse before he beats you with brute strength. But he's not a softie.
He is a very good teammate who wants to take big shots. He won't make all of them but he'll make his share. He's not a good defensive player but he's trying much more, and he's a smart player with a very high basketball IQ. When he speaks -- like when he said they needed to get the ball inside more -- he makes a lot of good sense. He's a guy you can play in the low post, and if he's playing one-on-one, he can go score. As a coach, you can be very happy with that opportunity. If the other team is trying to be physical down there with him, he can go to the high post, and you can play through him there because he's an extremely willing and accurate passer for a big man.
Gasol became a reliable star for the Lakers this year. Last year, I think Kobe didn't believe in the guy yet, but now with Kobe playing with more maturity and Gasol being there a full year and proving himself, it has made a huge difference.
Are they better with Gasol at power forward or center? There are pluses and minuses each way. As a center, he can go out high and pull Dwight Howard away from the basket some. At power forward, he can post up Rashard Lewis and really go to work there, command the double team and be effective exploiting it. I like him most at power forward and making Orlando have to adjust to him.
3. Andrew Bynum. Is Bynum going to be able to stay on the court and guard Howard so that Howard doesn't command a double team? If that can be done -- similar to the way Boston's Kendrick Perkins guarded Howard in the second round -- with Howard being held to 18-to-20 points while going one-on-one, then it's going to be very tough for Orlando to win.
You know Orlando is going to go right at Bynum and try to get him in foul trouble early. That's a problem for the Lakers. It would be helpful if Phil Jackson could play Bynum one-on-one against Howard for an extended section of each quarter without getting into foul trouble, but I don't know if Bynum is smart enough to do that yet.
The key for Bynum will be to do his work early, to use his size and lower-body strength to keep Howard from getting to his sweet spots. Once Howard is where he wants to be and he's making his moves, you've just got to whack him. You'd rather see him possibly struggling at the foul line than dunking on you.
At the other end, he can make Howard work defensively because Bynum is pretty clever, and Howard has had issues with foul trouble himself. Bynum has good footwork and he's getting better. When he tries to go outside the paint, that's when he screws up the triangle and all of the spacing with the other players.