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NBA Breakdown

In NBA on January 21, 2010 at 6:29 pm

Last Monday, the NBA celebrated Martin Luther King Day the only way they know how – with a feat of basketball action. MLK Day also marked (roughly) the half way point of the season, and with four of the top teams in action, here’s a breakdown of the night’s games and a run-down of the strengths and weaknesses of this quartet of playoff hopefuls.

Orlando Magic@LA Lakers

This game saw the No.1 team in the NBA, Kobe Bryant’s LA Lakers, taking on the 4th ranked team in the East, the Orlando Magic, in a repeat of last season’s NBA Finals.

The Lakers have been downright scary this year, amassing a record of 32-9 to easily hold the 1st seed in the West. The Magic, by contrast, have struggled compared to last year. Their star player, centre Dwight Howard, is still the best big man in the league, but he needs to add some finesse to his game. He could also do with some help from his teammates. Not even ‘Superman’ can carry this side to the Championship single-handed.

This game provided another pertinent example of the flaws that exist in this Orlando side. They lead the league in 3 point attempts, and the Lakers lead the league in 3 point defence, so this was always going to be tricky match-up for them, especially at the Staples Centre.

Kobe Bryant was quiet on Monday, but got the help he needed from his teammates

LA came out swinging in this one, as veteran Derek Fisher sparked them off to a great start. They worked hard on defence, forcing the Magic to make the extra pass as they built a 21-8 lead. They also made a big statement in these early stages as they beat the visitors at their own game. The Lakers hit 4/4 from long range, as they held their trigger happy opponents to just 1/8.

Their sticky one-on-one defending denied the Magic any space for the 3-ball, but true to their style, they tried anyway. Predictably, it didn’t work.

In addition to carving Orlando up on the outside, they also found plenty of joy in the paint, with Andrew Bynum racking up the baskets, hitting 4/5 from the field for 8 points. Dwight Howard did show a bit of variation, banking two nice jumpers in off the glass as Bynum played him soft. Unfortunately for the Magic, that was about the only bright spot.

Howard was working hard and finishing with his customary authority, but getting little help from elsewhere. Approaching the half, he had hit 8/12 from the field, with the rest of the team only 10/26, including a pathetic 1/10 from outside the arc.

Luckily, they found some devil to close things out. Ryan Anderson finally found his range, hitting two consecutive long bombs, and the Magic ended the half on a 12-4 run to close the gap to just 52-47 and give themselves some hope entering the second period.

This was hugely encouraging for the away side. They had been palpably second best for the whole half, but were still well in the game. Coach Stan van Gundy had also bemoaned their ‘glass jaw’ so far this season, but they had taken some big shots from the league’s best and were still holding out hope.

Dwight Howard was once again the Magic's 'go to' guy

This hope turned to belief in a crazy 3rd quarter. It started off with Vince Carter reprising his kitten impression as he bricked a 3 and had another long ball swatted, and it looked like trouble for the Magic. LA are the league’s best 3rd quarter team, and are also an incredible 27-0 when leading after 3, so Orlando needed something special.

Something special is what they got, as they launched a logic-defying 20-2 run in just 7 minutes to take a commanding lead. It’s hard to explain what happened really, but the Lakers certainly got sloppy. They missed 11 shots in a row as they settled for contested looks on the outside rather than moving it effectively and looking for penetration. In fact they didn’t register a single assist as they hit a laughable 4/23 from the field! They also lost their edge on the other end of the floor, allowing Howard and co to hit 9/10. The Magic, for their part, upped the intensity big time. They fought hard for 2nd chance points, and finally the 3s started dropping as they stormed into a 68-64 lead going into the 4th.

A slightly concerned Phil Jackson was interviewed courtside, but displayed his customary calm as he shrugged it off. ‘They got hot’, was his blithe explanation.

At this stage, the Lakers needed to regain the upper hand. Kobe Bryant was having a very poor game as he struggled through a back injury and a fractured finger, only hitting 3 of his 15 shots. They got what they needed as they took control, but from a very unlikely source. Orlando had thrown down the gauntlet, but at the start of the final quarter the home side picked it up and brutally KO’d their opponents with a ruthless 21-1 run to ice the game.

Jackson went with a speedy line-up which ran rings around the lumbering Magic. Shannon Brown, Jordan Farmar and Lamar Odom scored 17 points in a row as they nipped at the ball, forcing turnovers at will. They held their opponents without a field goal in 9 excruciating minutes as Dwight Howard was marginalised. Without him, the Magic had nothing, and the Lakers exorcised that uncomfortable 3rd quarter and cruised to a 98-92 win.

So what does this game tell us?

Well as far as the Lakers are concerned, not an awful lot. It does confirm some suspicions though. Right now, they are the best team in the league. They have awesome depth, a wealth of playoff experience and they can beat their rivals even without the league’s premier player, Kobe Bryant.

When bench players like Odom, Brown and Farmar can come in and completely alter the course of a game like this, you know they can find a spark when they need it. That’s very encouraging for Lakers fans. It also takes the pressure off Bryant, who felt he had to do it all in recent years. Now he’s surrounded by scoring options. Gasol and Bynum can both get it done inside, while Fisher provides a nice complement to Kobe’s own outside threat, and Artest is also a solid mid-range shooter. They’re all experienced players who can produce at the defensive end too, and all these factors combine to make the Lakers a clear favourite to retain their crown.

So afr, Vince Carter has been a bust in Orlando

Things are not nearly so pretty in Orlando, however. Dwight Howard is a monster, but the rest of the team is in a sorry state. Their problem is not so much an over-reliance on Howard, but their inability to get him the ball when it counts. He’s 3rd in the league in field goal percentage, so with the game on the line he is the man you want with the ball in his hands. Amazingly though, he ranks 200th in 4th quarter shot attempts! This shows a disturbing lack of ability to get the ball to him, and highlights the lack of a playmaking point guard for Stan van Gundy’s team.

They also took a big gamble in the off-season when they let Hedo Turkoglu leave and signed up Vince Carter. There was always a big risk of that back-firing, and sure enough, it looks likely to end in tears.

Unfortunately for all involved, it’s the same old Vince Carter. He has all the physical tools he needs to dominate at both ends of the court, but he just doesn’t have the toughness. On one possession, he waved the diminutive Derek Fisher through for a lay-up without even a token challenge. With his size, speed and athleticism he should also be making a living off free throws. But he‘s far more content to jack up shots from the outside all day, rather than subject his beefy body to a battering on the inside. This has been especially costly for the Magic this year as his field goals have dropped to 38% with his 3 point makes at just 30%. Against Portland for instance, 6 of his 7 shots were 3 pointers.

With long-bombers like Rashard Lewis already in the team, it makes them ridiculously dependent on these outside shots. Teams that live and die by the 3 rarely do much damage in the post-season, and unless something changes in Orlando they will be finished well before May.

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