The Orlando Magic defeated the Lakers in their only two regular season meetings. But when the teams met in the NBA Finals last week the Lakers won the first two games of the series.
How come? Experience at this level of competition.
As painful as the Lakers’ Finals loss to the Boston Celtics was a year ago it provided the team with an example of what is required in championship play.
“We learned from that,” said Kobe Bryant.
Pau Gasol sure learned. One of the Lakers’ frontline players who was outmuscled by the Celtics then, the slender but talented big man was much tougher this time. And Gasol took charge in the overtime of Sunday’s 101-96 win by scoring seven points.
So, when the teams went to Orlando for the next three games the Lakers had a 2-0 lead. In Finals history the teams who’ve won the first two games at home have won 94 per cent of the series.
An Orlando team hadn’t been in the Finals since 1995, and it showed.
Here are examples of the Magic’s inexperience being a big problem.
First, Orlando was jittery and non-competitive in Game One, which it lost by 25 points.
Playing much better in Game Two, it squandered an opportunity when Courtney Lee missed a layup at the final buzzer of regulation. The guard got open on a brilliantly designed play but couldn’t put the ball in the basket.
Something like that in the regular season gets only a brief mention. But the mistake is magnified in the spotlight of the Finals, an event covered by journalists from 220 countries and televised to most of those lands.
It has already been described as one of the biggest gaffes in Finals history, and if Orlando loses the series it will be the defining moment.
The Lakers dominated Game One. They were lucky to escape in Game Two.
“Orlando certainly had every opportunity to win,” said Laker Coach Phil Jackson.
If the Lakers were lucky, they’ll take the win without an apology. They’re also not concerned that some observers regard the Magic as a poor substitute for LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, who had the NBA’s best regular season record. Had Cleveland won its playoff series from Orlando it would have had the Finals homecourt advantage.
“On the championship rings it doesn’t say who you beat,” said Laker guard Derek Fisher, who’s earned three rings previously.
The Lakers know they didn’t play their best game Sunday.
“We missed a lot of assignments and still won,” said Kobe Bryant.
In defeat the Magic proved they can compete on virtually even terms with the Lakers. They showed the grit that allowed them to eliminate both Boston and Cleveland.
But they took a long flight home wondering what might have been had they made one more layup.