There’s a reason Orlando is in the NBA finals and Cleveland is not. Each team has a superstar of the first rank, but the main Magic man is a center.
The Cavaliers built around LeBron James by deploying shooters on the perimeter. (Even Zydrunas Ilgauskas, the titular center, shoots mostly jump shots.) As long as LeBron was driving and the shooters were hitting, it worked gloriously. But when the Magic made it tougher on LeBron and those shooters started missing, the team that won 66 games was laid bare.
Cleveland didn’t have a guy it could feed in the low post and say, “Make a basket.” Because Orlando’s best player is a true center, it always has that option. And by stationing knockdown shooters at every other position, the Magic mixed the ideal blend.
An opponent must always double-team Dwight Howard, but the Magic didn’t need to double-team Ilgauskas or Anderson Varejao, who’s a garbage collector, or Ben Wallace, who only defends. Orlando could shade its defense toward LeBron without fear of being punished underneath. You mightn’t have thought the Magic was the better side entering the series, but after Game 2 the Cavs had been reduced to relying on miracles.
The NBA finals begin Thursday night, and again Orlando is the underdog. The Lakers are more gifted than any other team and better balanced than Cleveland, but L.A. lacks a commodity the Magic has in bulk – ferocity.
The Magic played the heck out of the NBA elite all season. Orlando was 2-0 against the Lakers, 2-0 against San Antonio, 1-1 against Denver, 2-2 against Boston, 2-1 against Cleveland, 3-1 against the Hawks. And the Magic did this despite losing Jameer Nelson, the starting point guard, to injury Feb. 2. How? By being tough.
L.A. is the team of Wilshire Boulevard and Rodeo Drive. The Magic is based in central Florida and consists of resilient guys who’ve been around. The pro career of Rashard Lewis began with him sitting alone and forsaken in the green room at the 1998 draft. Hedo Turkoglu was born in Istanbul and is on his third NBA club. Rafer Alston, imported when Nelson was lost, made his reputation on the playgrounds of Queens and has worked for five NBA teams in 10 seasons.
There’s no prettier sight in sports than the Lakers when they’re clicking, but the Magic won’t let them. If we’ve learned anything from these playoffs, it’s that L.A. can be pushed. It needed seven games to dispose of the Yao-less Houston Rockets, and only in Game 5 against Denver did the Lakers push back.
The Magic pushes as a matter of course. Indeed, when the Hawks won the season opener in Orlando, coach Stan Van Gundy lit into his guys. “[The Hawks] played way too hard for us,” he said, and over the next seven months no team has played harder than SVG’s club. Heck, Orlando was so rattled by LeBron’s colossal Game 2 shot that it won three of the next four.
And it’s not as if the Magic is all effort and no skill. Those shooters can really shoot, and the Southwest Atlanta Christian alum has become the best big man in the world. There’s even a chance Nelson will play in the finals, but Orlando can win without him. Magic in six.