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Three and a half minutes remained in the opening half of Game 1 of the NBA Finals, and Kobe Bryant was in the midst of one of his Basketball Jesus impersonations. Thirty feet from the basket, his face scrunched up in a mask of determination, he dribbled toward Orlando guard Mickael Pietrus, a nice young man from France who was having a very bad evening. On the previous play Pietrus had seemingly stopped Bryant only to watch as the Lakers' guard pivoted, spun, pivoted again and then arced in an implausible fadeaway. Now, with Bryant on the attack again, the fans at Staples Center—on the celebrity-flecked sideline, in the inebriated depths of the second deck, even in the luxury boxes, where concentrating on the game is generally deemed uncouth—all fixated on Kobe, reluctant to look away lest they miss some bit of offensive poetry worthy of recital in the years to come.
Once Bryant scored—and of course he did, on a pull-up that was part of a 30-point eruption over 16 minutes—most of the fans exhaled, knowing they could look away for a moment, or at least until Los Angeles regained possession. But those who did risked missing an even more important spectacle, for it was on the other end of the court, down near the basket, where this series was being won and lost. That's where a gangly man with a tangle of brown hair and a patchwork beard (that would be Lakers forward Pau Gasol) spent much of the first two games methodically jabbing his forearm into the unyielding midsection of a towering man with cartoon deltoids (Orlando center Dwight Howard). Howard then would push back into Gasol, giving them the appearance of two very large kids jostling for a spot in line at an ice-cream stand.
As much as the first two games in these Finals could be viewed as the Kobe Bryant Show—and rightfully so, considering his exquisite Game 1 performance and the team-leading 29 points he scored in Game 2, both Lakers victories—his contributions were to be expected. This is, after all, a man who at age 30 has already scored more postseason points than all but five players in history and who remains the most gifted offensive player alive. (And, amusingly, is again being deemed the league's best overall player, only weeks after the title was officially, nonrefundably bestowed upon LeBron James.) As Howard put it after a 100--75 rout by L.A. in the opener, "We can't control Kobe having 40 points."
This may well be true, which brings us back to what both teams desperately need to control: the paint. The 23-year-old Howard prefers to muscle his way into post position before, in the words of L.A. assistant Brian Shaw, "pile-driving" to the basket; his mere presence down low draws defenders and creates open looks for his three-point-hoisting teammates. Gasol, at 28, is a 7-foot facilitator equally adept at posting up, slipping the ball to a cutting teammate and putting it on the floor. "They're about as different as big men get," says an Eastern Conference scout who is following the Finals, "but they're both a real bitch to prepare for."
Howard is so central to the Magic offense that the Lakers geared their entire defensive scheme toward neutralizing him. From the start of Game 1, whenever Howard caught the ball and turned, he found a yellow jersey either hurtling toward him or already stationed in his path. Howard finished with one field goal on six shots—can you imagine Bryant finishing a Finals game with one field goal?—and only 12 points. In Game 2, a 101--96 loss in overtime, he did better, racking up 17 points on 5-of-10 shooting, but he was harassed into seven turnovers. What's more, his first dunk of the series didn't come until midway through the third quarter of Game 2, which probably missed the over-under by about, oh, six quarters. Afterward Howard admitted that he was frustrated, crediting Los Angeles for doing "some crazy things" on defense.
Of course, one man's crazy is another's measured strategy, and the Lakers deserve credit for devising a multifaceted approach. First, they understood that with Howard the work starts early. Because of his speed—he finished third in a three-quarter-court sprint when strength coach Joe Rogowski timed all the Magic in the preseason—he is deadly when making "rim runs" in transition, beating opposing (and usually lumbering) big men downcourt to get deep post position. "You can have a half-court game plan to stop him, but it doesn't matter in transition because everyone's scrambling," says Mike Malone, the Cavaliers' lead defensive assistant, who spent the Eastern Conference finals struggling to solve the puzzle of Howard. "And if he gets that deep, how do you guard a guy like that when he's already got two feet in the paint?"
Thus every time Orlando gains possession, Gasol and L.A. center Andrew Bynum turn and sprint back to their own basket as if trying to outrun an avalanche. At the same time the Lakers' guards will veer into Howard's path to slow him down and buy their big men another step or two. (Knowing the importance of beating Howard downcourt, by the way, helps explain why Cleveland's plodding Zydrunas Ilgauskas was not exactly an ideal matchup.)
Once Howard gets the ball, usually on the left block, Los Angeles mixes up where the double teams come from and when. Sometimes it's on the catch, with a guard darting down from the top of the key; sometimes it's on the dribble, using a defender lurking along the baseline; and sometimes, as in the second quarter of Game 2 when power forward Lamar Odom flitted over, it arrives before Howard even gets the ball. If Howard is still able to make his move to the middle, more trouble awaits. Since L.A. knows Howard prefers to take running righthanded hooks, they can send their long-armed minions—Odom, Bryant and forward Trevor Ariza—not directly at Howard but rather to the spot where he will release his shot, aware that Howard's game is not yet refined enough that he can come to a jump-stop or kick the ball out once in motion. "We try to jam the lane a little bit because obviously it's hard to pass on the move when you're a post player," explains Gasol. "He's becoming a better passer, but I don't think he's a great passer yet. So we make him detour so he doesn't get a good rhythm."
Once a shot goes up, the next challenge is keeping Howard off the boards; he's averaging 4.5 offensive rebounds during the postseason and, as Gasol says drily, "I don't think I'm going to be outjumping him." The Lakers' solution is not to grab the board as much as redirect it from Howard's sizable mitts, with their perimeter players flying in and swatting at the ball. "Against a team that plays four-out, one-in like Orlando," explains Shaw, "instead of having [our perimeter] guys stay [outside], we have them run in and at least try to tip the ball."
Finally for the Lakers: If all else fails, fall. This was Gasol's strategy in Game 1—and yes, it could also be the title of a Vlade Divac hoops biography—when he took a charge on Howard the first time the two matched up, waiting for Howard to spin baseline and then crumbling on contact. Not long after, Gasol drew another charge, forcing Howard to become tentative for fear of foul trouble. Bynum took the opposite tack, bodying Howard and then, if the Orlando center got within arm's reach of the hoop (which is to say, monster-dunk range), wrapping him up as if applying an impromptu Heimlich. Interestingly, this is not a coaching strategy but a Bynum strategy. "The staff and the organization tell me, You're better than that, play him in there," confides Bynum, who has not fully recovered from a torn right MCL he suffered on Jan. 31. "But maybe he gets a dunk, maybe his shots start falling. I want to make sure he doesn't get going."