Friday, June 5, 2009
Magic have 'a long way to go'
By Marc Stein ESPN.com
A Magic team that took down the King was left stunned by the Lakers in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
LOS ANGELES -- This much we can pretty much promise: Dwight Howard is not going to go dunk-less in Game 2 of the NBA Finals.
Hard to see that happening two games in a row when that hasn't happened all season.
Two days to regroup, though, isn't as favorable as it sounds for the shell-shocked Orlando Magic. A dunk or three from Dwight is surely coming -- and you can safely presume that the free-flinging Magic will shoot better than 30 percent from the floor next time -- but they have lots to fix before these Finals resume Sunday (8 p.m. ET, ABC).
"We've got a long way to go," Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said, "to get back into this."
That might sound overly pessimistic after one game, even for an NBA coach as hard to please as Van Gundy, but he's not wrong. Too honest, perhaps. But undeniably accurate after Thursday night's 100-75 thrashing.
Strategic problems? In this series, as Orlando feared, Howard is already struggling to deal with the Los Angeles Lakers' array of big bodies and fast-changing coverages, all under the brightest lights Howard has ever seen. Even as limited and inconsistent as Andrew Bynum remains after midseason knee surgery, just having Bynum available to team with the likes of Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and Trevor Ariza -- which you'll recall wasn't an option in the 2008 Finals -- enables L.A. to swarm Howard with the sort of long, mobile defenders he rarely sees in the East. Which is why Van Gundy also has volunteered that getting the ball inside to Howard with more frequency and efficiency, then back to the shooters if needed, is priority No. 1 for Game 2.
Rotation issues? You can understand why Van Gundy wants to play Jameer Nelson in this series, given Nelson's history of hurting the Lakers and his unquestioned status as Orlando's emotional spark plug. Yet you also can't deny that the Game 1 gamble of sending Howard's best friend out there for 23 minutes, after Nelson hadn't played at all for nearly four months, only discombobulated Orlando further on a progressively ugly night that ended with the Magic fielding a flurry of stage-fright questions.
Psyche concerns? The Magic have to have some of those, too, after this kind of hammering to get things started. In the Eastern Conference finals, when they stamped themselves as an elite team by taking down Cleveland, no deficit seemed too big. At the first attempt in the NBA Finals, Orlando inexplicably wasn't ready and couldn't stop the Game 1 deficit from reaching 28. Howard said it about a dozen times afterward: "Nobody's effort was there."
Fixable as that sounds, effort and energy tend to fritter away when a team's belief gets shaken. It'll take a seriously strong rebound in Game 2 for the Magic to convince the skeptics that hasn't happened this quickly, after the combination of what might have been Kobe Bryant's finest playoff performance ever (40 points, eight rebounds and eight assists) along with L.A.'s length and athleticism put Orlando in a 1-0 hole that seems bigger than it sounds.
Not because Phil Jackson teams are 43-0 in the playoffs when they win the first game of a series. Not because Orlando, as a franchise, is 0-5 in the Finals. It's debatable how much historical tidbits like that really apply.
L.A.'s 1-0 series lead seems so daunting purely because the Lakers are rolling up more momentum than even the Magic brought here, no matter how many times Kobe shifts into downplay mode and claims that the Lakers -- having perhaps just strung together their three best games all season -- really "haven't found anything yet."
In a bow to his years with Pat Riley, Van Gundy invoked the memory of the Memorial Day Massacre, when Riley's Lakers lost Game 1 of the 1985 Finals in Boston by 34 points and still won the championship in six games.
"Those kind of things happen," he said.
Trouble is, Van Gundy doesn't have the sort of experience on his roster that Riles had to cope with that kind of beatdown. The Finals neophytes from central Florida have no Magic, Kareem or Worthy.
"That's one of those stories that you write ahead of time and you have ready to go if a team doesn't play well," Van Gundy said. "I say that all the time to you [media] guys. It's the simply cliché psychology stuff that you guys write when a team doesn't play well.
"I have no idea on that. That is not in my thinking at all. My thought process is: 'How are we going to defend them better? What are we going to do offensively to score?' We need to play better. You guys can write all the psychological stuff. Nobody cares if you're right, anyway."
Yet Van Gundy's disdain for the armchair therapists in the press pack doesn't change what he said from the jump of his Game 1 post-mortem: Orlando has lots to repair even if the presumed dents to its self-confidence are a media creation.
The Lakers have the athletes and size to not only front or double-team Howard but also chase down Orlando's shooters at the 3-point line. Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis, as Van Gundy dreaded coming in, suddenly find themselves working much harder on defense than they did in the last round when they're not trying to maneuver past defenders their own size for a change.
Ruthless as Bryant was in the second half, slicing through a defense that looked nothing like Boston's packed paint this time last year -- or even Houston's in this year's second round -- Bynum played Howard to a first-half draw and L.A. dominated on the boards. Throw in Howard's early foul trouble, which only enabled the hosts to get out harder and faster on Orlando's shooters, and it all adds up to a whopping 64-point turnaround from the Lakers' Game 6 nightmare in Boston when we last saw them in the Finals.
Now it's the Magic's turn for a resurrection. You want to believe they've got one more surprise stored up, remembering how decisively they answered Glen Davis' Game 4 buzzer-beater by winning a Game 7 in Boston and then bullied LeBron James' Cavs. But this looks like a bigger job for Superman & Co. based on our first glimpse of how L.A.'s activity took away Orlando's inside game.
We'll be keeping our list of Game 2 guarantees short.
1. Orlando is obviously going to shoot the ball better, after its mere 23 baskets nearly tied the Finals low of 21 for the Utah Jazz in that dreadful 96-54 loss to Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls in the 1998 Finals.
2. And Howard -- held to one measly lefty hook and just six field goal attempts, forcing him to rely on 10-for-16 shooting at the line to get to 12 points with his 15 boards -- won't need long to end his dunk drought.
How can we be so sure? You have to go back about a year and a half, to the first half of the 2007-08 season, for the last time Dwight played in two straight games without at least one throwdown.
"This is nothing to them," Kobe insisted, saying what you're supposed to say after slamming a team with the world watching like the Lakers just did but convincing few in the room.
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.