The Lakers say they learned a lot from being humiliated by the Boston Celtics in the final playoff game a year ago.
The Lakers are back in the NBA Finals, which begin Thursday night at Staples Center. But the opponent won’t be the Celtics, who were plagued by injuries, or the Cleveland Cavaliers, who had the NBA’s best record this season led by regular season MVP LeBron James. It will be the Orlando Magic, the only other Eastern Conference team which seemed to have a chance of getting this far.
Because the Lakers’ regular season record was better they have home court advantage in the 2-3-2 format.
“We learned from last season,” said Kobe Bryant. “We learned what was necessary to win at that level. The playoffs are at least 100 percent more intense than the regular season and it goes up another 100 percent in the finals.”
The Celtics bullied the Lakers on the inside. That could happen again because the Magic has the NBA’s best center in Dwight Howard. The play of Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom will go a long way in determining how the Lakers will do.
But Orlando, which hasn’t been in the NBA Finals since it had Shaquille O’Neal in 1995, now has another important dimension — the best three-point shooting in the league.
The roster has been built with the philosophy of surrounding the dominant center with outstanding long-range shooters. So the defense has the choice of double-teaming Howard to curtail his effectiveness and taking their chances against the others or playing straight up and conceding Howard about 40 points.
The Magic defeated the Lakers in their only two regular season meetings, 109-103 and 106-103 which represents maturity of the Florida team because the Lakers won in Orlando last season.
In shaping their roster Orlando signed Seattle’s Rashard Lewis as a free agent and acquired Hedo Turkoglu from Sacramento. When their point guard was injured in mid-season they traded with Houston for Rafer Alston.
So this is a rebuilt team with championship weapons –a team that beat both Boston and Cleveland in the playoffs.
But the Lakers, who have a championship history, have a coach with nine NBA titles in his resume. If a few games are required to figure out a winning plan Phil Jackson has shown he can do that.
The Lakers won the final two Western Conference Finals games from Denver after struggling to a 2-2 standoff.
“We saw in the films how they were defending us and determined what we could do,” said Bryant.
After forward Trevor Ariza took advantage of a soft defense on him to score 10 first quarter points in the final game in Denver the Nuggets switched to playing straight up on everyone.
“They didn’t double team me so I became more aggressive on offense,” said Bryant, who scored 35 points.
Both teams have the personnel to win the championship. It will come down to which one executes best and avoids key mistakes.
If the Lakers prevail Jackson will break a tie with Boston’s Red Auerbach, who also has nine championships.