In the NBA Playoffs, the Final Four is Far From Perfect, but the Orlando Magic Looks Best

By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, May 28, 2009

ORLANDO All four playoff semifinalists are flawed in some obvious and fundamental way. The Lakers get pushed around. The Cavaliers desperately need one more skilled helper for LeBron James. The Nuggets come to play far too often without their thinking caps. And Orlando violates one of basketball's Ten Commandments: Thou shalt not live by the jump shot.

Not one of the four is a great team; the Lakers, strangely enough, aren't even as good as they were last season with essentially the same personnel. Yet, it's difficult to imagine that the conference final round of the NBA playoffs could be any more dramatic or tense or have any richer subplots. Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard, two of the central characters in this production, are perilously close to being suspended for a game for having too many technical fouls in the postseason.

Of even greater urgency, in the wake of Orlando's Game 4 victory over Cleveland late Tuesday night, is that LeBron James is on the verge of being out. What in the world, then, will happen to that unbelievably annoying puppet commercial featuring a talc-tossing LeBron and something that's supposed to be Kobe but looks like Dizzy Gillespie? Can we request it go away if one or the other is eliminated from the playoffs?

We'd better get used to the possibility of having the NBA Finals without one, and possibly without both. LeBron's in bigger trouble, down 3-1 to Orlando. But it's not like the Lakers are a lock to beat Denver in the Western Conference finals, even though they hold a 3-2 series lead after Wednesday night's 103-94 victory.

The funny thing is the reaction from other players on the topic of Kobe vs. LeBron and whether the NBA community, including the league office, is actively rooting for the matchup. "We're supposed to just go lay down so [the Lakers] can get in the Finals?" Denver's Kenyon Martin asked incredulously. Dwight Howard, moments after leading his team past Cleveland on Tuesday night, asked me, "Have you seen the ESPN page that has Kobe stuff down one side and LeBron stuff down the other?" (No, I hadn't).

Even with Kobe and LeBron factored in, the four teams are remarkably even, it appears. In fact, if I had to take one team of the NBA's final four it would be Orlando. It's hard, through four games, to not take Orlando's roster over Cleveland's, which is probably why the Magic have outplayed the Cavaliers all four games and would have swept the series were it not for LeBron's miracle shot that won Game 2 for Cleveland.

Seriously, if we do this playground style and simply chose from the available players in the Cleveland-Orlando series, here's how it would play out for me: LeBron, unarguably, is the first pick. But the next four picks would be Magic players. Howard, Hedo Turkoglu, Rashard Lewis and probably Mickael Pietrus would all be picked before the next Cav, say, Mo Williams and Delonte West. Turns out LeBron spun magic during the regular season to get 66 wins out of this bunch and Orlando is a nightmare matchup for Cleveland. The Cavs would have had much better luck with the Celtics in this round.

Of course, Orlando Coach Stan Van Gundy doesn't want to hear a word of this stuff, not with LeBron still ambulatory. With his team a hair over three seconds from victory in Game 4 and Cleveland without a timeout, Van Gundy told one of his bench players, Tyronn Lue: "With LeBron James on the floor doesn't 3.2 seconds seem like it's two minutes?' I mean, we put two guys on him on the inbounds," Van Gundy said. " I don't know if anybody noticed that. We had two guys on him on the inbounds. He made a move like a tight end and caught the ball and still gets off a reasonable shot" that would have won the game for Cleveland, except it missed to end the game in overtime.

Van Gundy continued to gush, without good reason, though.

"The three he hit before that is out of this world. I mean, to turn and hit that, I mean, this guy is unbelievable. The stuff that he is doing in this series is unbelievable. I'm very proud of our guys to keep hanging in there with what he's doing in this series. I was happy to get the win. I look at it now as we're up two at the end of the third quarter. We got three of the four quarters that we need to win. We're up two at the end of the third. That's all I look at you know, this thing is a long, long, long way from over, just like the games in this series have been. When you've got a guy as great as him on the other side, you're a long way from done."

The Magic got some good news Wednesday when the NBA rescinded a completely undeserved technical foul assessed to Howard on Tuesday night. It would have been his sixth, putting him one away from a one-game suspension.

Rafer Alston clearly was in a full fret as he left the arena Tuesday night.

"Every time he gets a foul called against him, every time he gets the ball in the paint and they don't call a foul, I cringe," Alston said. "He seems like he is going to say something that's going to warrant a tech. I hope he understands this is a crucial time for not only him but for us as a team because so much of what we are trying to accomplish involves him. If he gets a technical foul, we lose him for a game, let's say -- let's say we happen to win the next game but he gets a tech. We lose him for the first game of the Finals. That's going to hurt us."

As is, Howard promised after Game 4 to buy some duct tape to put over his mouth, and Orlando will presumably continue about its merry, three-point-shooting ways.

If it's not Turkoglu firing threes, then its Lewis, or Pietrus or in the case of Game 4, Alston, who hit 6 of 12. The Magic was 15 for 30 from behind the arc at one point and settled for making 17 of 38. Orlando simply doesn't believe it can die by the jump shot, as the rest of us were taught back in Biddy Ball when we were 10. Yes, they're getting it inside more frequently to Howard, like in OT when he dunked the ball three times and scored 10 of his team's 16 points. Still, it's not a traditional inside-out approach to offense. It's quite the opposite, in fact.

When the Cavaliers left Alston open he took it personally. "Philadelphia, their coach dared me to shoot it and I burned them in Game 6 at their place," he said. "Boston dared me to shoot it [and] I burned them in Game 7 at their place. . . . They are daring me to shoot it. The first two games, not so good shooting the ball. But here I am, it is the last two, I'm able to knock them down. It is a make-and-miss league. This is how it goes."

Amazingly, it's exactly how it goes for Orlando. And it might take the Magic all the way to a championship. The Lakers are still searching for the consistency and power game. The Nuggets, sometimes on the same possession, look like the Harlem Globetrotters and the Bad News Bears. Two botched inbounds plays, probably with the wrong man throwing the ball in, might have doomed them in a pair of losses to the Lakers. Those of us who thought Orlando was a bickering, struggling team entering the playoffs and would exit early in this postseason are wrong, perhaps very wrong.

"I'm happy with our progress [but] I'm not satisfied," Howard said. "We've done a pretty good job this year, but the only way -- and I have been telling you all year -- we'll get respect is by winning. We haven't won anything yet. We won a couple games, and that's our mind-set: We won a couple games. So what? We want the respect after winning the championship. That's the only way we are going to get anybody's respect, is by winning. We won a couple games. That's great. It feels good. We're not happy with just winning a couple games in the Eastern Conference finals. We want to win the whole thing. That's when we will be happy."

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