The enemy from the eastern front...
...is Orlando, notable because their team is named after one of our former players, so you will often hear me refer to them as the Earvins.
Many Laker fans wanted a rematch with Boston. After the Garnett and especially Powe injuries, I wanted that myself, as they would have easily been the easiest opponent of the three and we would have had home court.
Once we got to the Eastern Conference Finals, most Laker fans seemed to prefer a matchup with Cleveland, based on the tenuous premise that having beaten them twice in the regular season (once even with most of their guys playing) meant that we matched up well with them. But having "witnessed" games before last October, I remember how poorly we have matched up with them in most recent years, and I was not willing to ignore that based on the results of one game. Plus there is the small matter of them having gone 39-1 at home this year, "slumping" all the way to 6-1 in the playoffs. And oh yeah, they have the best basketball player on the planet.
So I was wanting to face Orlando. Yes, they beat us twice, but they were both flip a coin games decided in the last minute and they are missing (or, mostly missing, maybe) the player who was the key to those wins, Jameer Nelson.
For me, the deciding factor is home court. However you feel about the relative matchups, the one thing that is beyond question is that any home games at this level are easier than any road games. Thus, against Orlando, games 1-2-6-7 will be easier, games 3-4-5 more difficult. Had we played Cleveland, the opposite. 4 > 3. QED.
There is plenty of analysis out there, so I won't go into great detail here, but will touch on a couple of things that stand out for me.
* We MUST work the offense inside out: this is always a key for the Lakers, when the offense flows through Pau we are almost impossible to defend. When Kobe dominates the ball, we are not only much easier to defend, but the role players are much less effective.
Kobe allowed himself to get sucked into this in last year's Finals, and on occasion in this run, but he has really matured in the area of playing team basketball. Let's hope he plays intelligently and doesn't regress into Bad Kobe, dribbling aimlessly and firing up 20+ foot jumpers with regularity.
* Bynum must give us something: a healthy Bynum has played Howard to a standstill at times, fallen into foul trouble and disappeared others. This 80% version will have to try to keep up with him getting downcourt, if not he gets deep post position against somebody who will have to foul or allow him a dunk (or both). Drew also has the strength to keep him out of his deep sweet spots, but you have to get in position to get that done.
And don't reach; once the play is in motion, be big and make it tougher for him. Better to give up a contested hook shot, even if it goes in, than to foul and go to the bench. Other players can foul, as you want Howard on the line instead of dunking, but Bynum (and Pau) need to be judicious with their fouls.
Similarly, anytime Bynum can get deep post position he can force Howard into fouls himself - Dwight has been known to work himself into trouble too. Even without great position, showing Howard a patient series of post moves will give us chances to score and/or saddle him with fouls.
Bottom line, Bynum will pick up fouls, often quickly, but we need minutes from him. Use them intelligently and adjust to how the game is being called on a given night.
* Pau's matchups: Much is made of Lewis being a bad matchup for Pau, as you have to watch him out to the 3 point line but guard against him driving by you at the same time. However, Pau is nimble enough to switch the 3/4 pick and pop they run, and long enough to bother his shot some. Lewis also tends to drift at times, he will hurt you but he doesn't have the instinct to be a true primary player as his talent warrants.
And here's the thing: Pau and Odom are a terrible matchup for Lewis on the other end. Pau is too long and has way too many post moves for Lewis to handle him without help. And Odom is too quick for him. We should be able to get as much as we give at worst here. One thing to guard against is Odom's tendency to overhelp; he must stay attached to Lewis and resist his natural instinct to play team defense.
Howard is more problematic. Pau is not strong enough to check him, and cannot afford to get into too much foul trouble. He will have to concede some and we will have to bring smart help, off Alston and Lee primarily, and mix up the looks we give him.
You can't double too much, Orlando's whole game is built around getting teams into scramble mode and they are adept at making the extra pass to find the open 3 point shooter. They are going to get some open looks, but you want to limit those as much as you can, if Howard gets his that's just the price you have to pay, especially if he's getting them at the line.
Pau should also be able to have some success against Howard with his superb post moves and counters, making him work at worst and hopefully putting fouls on him too.
* Somebody needs to hit shots: Howard is the best defensive player in the league, and the best at closing down the paint. This is why establishing our bigs is so important, he wasn't forced to play much man against Cleveland and Boston and could concentrate on inside help.
But no matter what, he will make it tougher to get good inside looks and drives, so we will need some of the role players to hit some shots. They have to choose whether to leave Ariza or Fisher, Trevor needs to continue his great work from distance and Fish needs to break out of his playoff slump. Some help from Sasha would be useful too, they will certainly leave him. ShanWOW is another guy who could get some looks and can knock them down.
Hitting some shots, not a ton of them but enough to make them respect it, will open things up some and give the driving Kobe and Trevor chances to put cheap fouls on Howard and give the triangle's cutters angles to get easy scores.
* Defend the pick and roll: they usually run this with Turkoglu or Alston getting the high screen from Howard, with Lewis rotating to spot up the top of the key. The options are for Howard to get deep position and take an entry pass, Hedo to shoot a midrange or a kickout to Lewis for a 3. We must have the discipline to stay attached to Lewis here, and make smart rotations and recoveries inside. You will want to help off of Alston or Lee, but sometimes it will be Pietrus, and that's what gets dicey. He's not a very good shooter but he was hot in the ECF and can hurt you when he's on a streak.
They also run the play with Rashard set up for the corner 3 and somebody spotted up on the elbow extended (often Pietrus). Again, the key is not to wander away from Lewis, and in this action it's easier to get him the ball (but also easier to play that passing lane). And to give Howard different looks on the help inside. You'll live with Hedo shooting a 2, and you love Alston shooting.
The FB&G guys advocate ball pressure to delay them getting into their offense and force them to rush passes and shots, and that makes a lot of sense to me.
* Dangerous road teams: Sure, I'm happy to have home court, but these are the two best road teams in the league, Orlando will have to win two games on the road to get a ring and LA will have to win at least one. This will be no series to panic over home losses, and no series to mail in road games with weak efforts.
* Brilliant coaching: Phil would have had a major advantage over Mike Brown, but in Van Gundy he has arguably the league's best with whom to match wits. The adjustments will be fascinating to watch, as will the press conferences.
So back we are, a sort of Redeem Team II seeking to erase past sins, with so much historical significance for Phil and Kobe especially. Savor this, while we have been lucky these opportunities should not be taken for granted, continue to enjoy the journey and don't get too high or too low game by game or quarter by quarter, this one will be a dogfight.