- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Lakers in seven games. That forecast would have come with the warning of not betting the house on it in the pre-bailout history of the nation.

The Magic and Lakers are seeming equals on paper, each with sufficient strengths to exploit the other. The Lakers merit a slight edge because of their home court advantage and lesson in the NBA Finals last June.

The Magic have no big-stage background to draw upon after defying expectations the last two rounds.

They eliminated the Celtics in a Game 7 on the road and dispatched the favored Cavaliers in six games. They have ignored the prevailing sentiment and shown themselves to be more than Dwight Howard.

Yet the last rung of June is far more challenging. The world is watching. Reputations are won. Or lost. Every outcome is magnified. No one wants to become a footnote in the manner of John Starks or Nick Anderson.

Young teams often reach championship status with hard-earned steps. The Magic dropped seven consecutive postseason series before advancing to the conference semifinals last spring and expediting the maturation process this postseason.

The Magic swept two games from the Lakers in the regular season, instructive or not. Injured point guard Jameer Nelson bedeviled the Lakers in both meetings, combining for 55 points.

He is pushing to return against the Lakers, a questionable decision considering he has been out of commission since early February. His ability to be a positive factor, if he does return in a limited function, is a long-shot proposition at best.

“There’s a very smidgen of a chance he can play,” Magic general manager Otis Smith says, not able to be more encouraging than that.

Phil Jackson, seeking to snap his championship tie with the late Red Auerbach, is obligated to tweak his team’s defense, prone as it is to surrendering a high number of open perimeter shots.

That proclivity is liable to be exacerbated against a team that flourishes with the 3-point shot. Rashard Lewis, Hedo Turkoglu, Mickael Peitrus and Rafer Alston are capable 3-point shooters, each able to recognize who is feeling it and who isn’t.

With Howard in the low post and four shooters spreading the floor, even the best defense can be compromised. That reality befell the Cavaliers, whose defense was significantly more imposing than the one practiced by the Lakers.

The Lakers took a somewhat tortuous route to the NBA Finals. Their fortitude and toughness have been questioned, especially after they needed a seventh game to eliminate the crippled Rockets. The return of center Andrew Bynum has been a nonfactor. His most redeeming quality in this series will be the six fouls he can use on Howard.

The enigma who is Lamar Odom goes missing on occasion. Other times he is a stat-filling sort who provides the Lakers with the third option behind Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol.

The Odom-Turkoglu matchup perhaps will define the series, assuming Howard and Bryant and Gasol and Lewis essentially cancel each other out.

Turkoglu handles the ball a whole lot more than Odom and can be a burden on the opposition even if his shot is not falling. Odom seemingly needs a few early baskets to stay interested and active in the proceedings.

The Magic do not run a lot of offensive sets. Theirs is a pick-and-roll, read-and-deliver attack, if they are not dumping the ball to Howard.

Their team defense, anchored as it is by the shot-blocking of Howard, has been quietly effective in the playoffs.

The repeated sight you are about to see is Bryant pulling up to shoot a 12-footer instead of tempting Howard at the basket. Unfortunately for the Magic, Bryant is as efficient taking short pull-up jumpers as he is finishing at the basket.

This is possibly Bryant’s last moment to reshape his legacy.

That, too, bodes in the favor of the Lakers.

The Magic can afford to be satisfied in defeat. Bryant and the Lakers have no such benefit.

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