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NBA Finals Preview

While it was seemingly predetermined that the Lakers would return to the NBA Finals for a second consecutive year and record 30th time overall, the Eastern Conference playoffs ended up leaving in its wake a long trail of what ifs.

What if the baby Bulls had had the chops to knock off the Celtics in the Most Epic First Round Series Ever?  Would the Finals be returning to Chicago for the first time since MJ?

What if the Magic hadn’t received a team-altering gut check when the Celtics stormed back in the fourth to take Game 5 in Boston?  Would they still have been able to come together and vanquish the champs in Game 7?

What if Lebron had a Ray Allen?  Or a Rashard Lewis or Pau Gasol?

And the granddaddy of them all: What if Kevin Garnett had been healthy?  If so, would any of the above groups of questions have even been worth asking?

(No, no, and yes.)

As tantalizing and vexing as it is to ponder what might have been, the facts remained that Kevin Garnett wasn’t walking through that door and Mo Williams wasn’t going to be the crucial second banana on a championship team.

Enter Magic, stage right.

Let’s not sell Orlando short.  The Celtics and the Lebrons didn’t give it up to Superman and his sidekicks; they had it taken from them.  While it’s realistically impossible to beat a pair of champs in the same playoffs, the Magic did essentially that.

They grew up before our eyes after enduring one of the most painful 1-2 punches in playoff history to go down 3-2 to the Celtics.  Just when everyone thought it was over, the Magic — trailing in the fourth quarter of Game 6 in their own building — came alive to send the series back to Boston, where they promptly became the first team in history to come back from down 3-2 to beat a Celtics outfit.

Cleveland may not have been the defending champs, but they had fallen only once in 44 games that mattered in their house.  Orlando wasn’t given a choice: Either tear down the walls of a building that contained one of the most decisive home courts advantages off all time, or go home.

Make no mistake about it: The visiting team that will be showing up at Staples Center Thursday is not the same squad it was at this time last month.  The Magic are as battled-tested and proven as any team making its first Finals appearance in 14 years could be.  They won a Game 7 on the toughest home court to win a Game 7 on, then steamrolled a team nobody and their mothers gave them a chance of beating.

At the heart of the matter — and indeed what becomes the determining factor in the majority of playoff series — was favorable matchups.  Orlando had them against both the Celtics and Cavaliers.

Versus the Celtics, Paul Pierce had to give up four inches to guard Hedo Turkoglu, and the duo of Big Baby Davis and Brian Scalabrine was borderline comical given their task was to contain Rashard Lewis.  Kendrick Perkins put on a clinic of how to defend Dwight Howard (muscle him up chest to chest and force him into running line drive hooks) for five games until Superman got angry at his coach, and that was that.

Against Cleveland, let’s just say as dominant as Lebron was, there was a mismatch of comparably epic proportions on the other side.  Howard did the basketball equivalent of eating Zydrunas Ilgauskas for breakfast or stealing Anderson Varejao’s lunch money.  And he’s simply a bigger, younger and meaner version of Ben Wallace.  Ouch.

How next to nobody saw this coming is a topic for another day.  But staying on the topic of matchups, it’s hard for anyone to be so naive to think the Magic will have the same ease operating in their style of play against Los Angeles.

If you could tailor a pair of defenders to man up Turkoglu and Lewis, some version of Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol would emerge.  Gasol has the wingspan to interrupt Turkoglu out on the perimeter and the quickness to stay with him on penetration.  The scouting report on Odom indicates he’s ideally suited for defending Lewis, in that he’s long and agile, and more than comfortable operating outside of the paint.

It’s more or less a certainty that Howard will give Andrew Bynum some serious on-the-job schooling, but Phil Jackson will not allow him to be so fluid in his dominance.  Which is to say you’ll see a lot of the Josh Powells and D.J. Mbengas playing small spurts merely to make life as taxing as can be on Superman.

In addition to matchups, there are two other factors that, depending on the series, can swing an outcome.  The first is coaching, an aspect of this Finals that needs little synthesis, considering one guy has nine rings and the other is in uncharted territory.

The second is hunger.  As talented as the Lakers were last year, they ran into the hungriest squad this side of the 2004 Red Sox.  Playing Garnett, Pierce and the famished Celtics was like running into the proverbial buzzsaw.  The Lakers didn’t stand a chance.

Well, as the saying goes, times change.  Last year, we didn’t see the hungry, desperate, ferociously competitive Kobe Bryant until the gold medal game in the Olympics.  Then we saw him.  His teammate now and competitor at the time, Gasol, saw him.  Lebron and Carmelo Anthony took note.

This is Kobe’s time, and everyone knows it.  A win in the 2009 NBA Finals cements Kobe as one of the handful of greatest players of all time and puts him on the list of most prolific champions.  He’ll also tie that fella named Shaq with four rings, one on the solo.

A magical run it has been for Orlando, but it will end at the last possible moment in the least desirable place, at the hands of the Black Mamba.

Lakers in seven.

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