Monday, June 1, 2009

Experience Preferred: Can Orlando Stop Kobe and the Lakers?

Anthony Johnson has been here before: twice. He was a member of the New Jersey Nets' back-to-back Eastern Conference Champion teams in 2002 and 2003. In his two Finals appearances with New Jersey, he averaged 5.3 ('02) and 5.6 ('03) minutes per game. His Nets team was swept by the Lakers in the 2002 NBA Finals.

Tyronn Lue was here in 2001 when he was used by the Los Angeles Lakers to guard Allen Iverson. He averaged 14.6 minutes, 3.6 points and 1.4 steals in the Finals that year.

The only players on the Magic with any experience on basketball's biggest stage are Johnson and Lue, two backups, one of which, Lue, has played in only one game in these playoffs for only four minutes. Johnson has been used quite frequently off the bench, averaging 14.7 minutes a game and adding 4.3 points and 2.1 assists a game.

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After that, the Magic must rely on team leader and physical freak Dwight Howard to provide the inspiration and leadership in the Finals. After throwing down 40 points and grabbing 14 rebounds to send LeBron and the Cavs packing, Howard closed out the collective favorites to win the East and now seems ready to take on the best of the West.

Seeing him dominate the court last Saturday is welcomed inspiration and hope for Magic fans that may have apprehensions about seeing their Magic led into the Finals by a 23 year old kid. Howard must be fearless when he meets Kobe and his Lakers in Los Angeles on Thursday.

It's not that he won't have help, though. Mickael Pietrus has been on fire of late, contributing 12.1 and 13.8 points per game in the conference semi's and conference finals, respectively. Rashard Lewis has also been a consistent performer in these playoffs and a clutch 3-point shooter when the Magic need it most. He also brings that veteran leadership that the Magic will surely need to keep them going late in games throughout the Finals. Many would be surprised to learn that he currently leads the league in minutes throughout the playoffs (773) and averages more minutes than anybody gearing up to play in the Finals (40.7). And yes, that's more than Kobe (40.0). He has relatively little experience late in the playoffs, however.

I've been trying to avoid stating the obvious in saying that Kobe Bryant has a ridiculous amount of experience and playing time in the playoffs and especially in the NBA Finals. But, alas, I've stated the obvious. In his career, he has missed the playoffs only one time; this coming in the 2004-2005 season when his Lakers were still recovering from losing Shaq to the Heat in a momentous trade that sent Los Angeles into a new chapter in team history. After the Shaq/Kobe era, Kobe's Lakers teams quickly recovered from losing the big man and find themselves once again among the NBA's perennial elites.

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We all know Kobe boasts an impressive Finals resume, but most of the rest of the team has been there before as well. Most got their first taste of the Finals last year when the Lakers were downed by the Boston Celtics in a throwback to the Lakers/Celtics rivalries of old.

So here we are: Lakers vs. Magic. The Magic have to contend with 3-time NBA Champion Kobe Bryant, making his sixth Finals appearance and a roster full of wily vets, such as Derek Fisher, and emerging young stars who have more playoff and Finals experience than even the more experienced Magic players. Of the Lakers' 14 man roster, only four players have no Finals experience: Andrew Bynum, who missed last year's Finals due to injury, rookie Sun Yue and second year players Adam Morrison and Shannon Brown.

Eight members of this year's team were on last year's Western Conference Champion team that lost to Boston in the Finals. Didier Ilunga-Mbenga and Josh Powell played minimal minutes and were unable to score a single point for the 2006 Dallas Mavericks team that was defeated by the Miami Heat in the 2006 Finals.

Coming out of the gate, or even before the gun is fired I guess, it seems as though Orlando may be in over their heads trying to contend with a Lakers team that, for the most part, has been there and (almost) done that.

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Watching the Finals this year will be interesting. Who on Orlando will step up when things are not going the Magic's way? Will it be the youngster Courtney Lee, who, in his rookie season, is playing like a veteran? Who will summon the courage to take that big shot on the sport's biggest stage with millions watching? Will Jameer Nelson, a Lakers' Achilles Heel in the regular season, play? And how in the world will the Orlando Magic quiet Kobe Bryant?

This is going to be good…I hope.

Written By Danny Hobrock

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