It wasn't easy, but the Lakers beat Orlando on Monday night, handing the Magic its seventh loss in nine games. It was the third win in a row for L.A. which won in Dallas, beat the Clippers by 40, and knocked off the Magic -- all over the past week.
Both Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown have been great over that stretch, and have given the Lakers a whole new dimension in the backcourt. For that reason, and several others, these aren't the same teams that met for the title back in June.
Coming into Monday, Orlando and the Lakers had each played 40 games. The Lakers stood at 31-9, while the Magic came in at 26-14.
I know it's early, but I'm convinced we won't see the Magic in the finals again this year.
Last year, in their 40th game, the Magic beat the Lakers, and it was Orlando which stood at 31-9. I talked to Lakers assistant Brian Shaw after that loss, and he told me, "don't sleep on the Magic -- they're for real." It was the second time the Magic had beaten L.A., and I mentioned to several people that I wouldn't be surprised to see that team in the finals. I thought that for two reasons:
They matched up well against the two other Eastern Conference power teams -- Cleveland and Boston -- so I knew they could get out of the East.
They had a unique strategy that no other team in the league could pull off.
Those two things go together. The reason the Magic could handle either the Cavs or Celtics was because of their strategy. They built the team around Dwight Howard, who was (and still is) impossible to guard one-on-one. They then surrounded Howard with a collection of outside shooters who were deadly when left open. Two of those shooters, Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu, were exceptionally good, and could score from anywhere on the floor. Jameer Nelson was an outstanding young point guard, and Courtney Lee and Rafer Alston were also good in the backcourt.
Teams were left to pick their poison. If you didn't double-team Howard, he would go off for 40 points and 20 rebounds. If you did double-team him, he was such a good passer that he would simply figure out where the defender came from, and hit a teammate for a wide-open jumper.
In last year's playoffs, Orlando shredded Cleveland because the Cavs didn't have anybody who could guard Howard, and they had to double him. When they did, Turkoglu and Lewis made them pay. The only reason that Orlando wasn't more competitive against L.A. in the finals was that the Lakers had multiple big men to send at Howard, and they never doubled him.
After that, the Magic shuffled their roster, and now I don't think they'll get out of the East. First, they dumped Lee and Alston. Then, they let Turkoglu go in free agency, and spent his money on Vince Carter.
Carter is a great player, but he's a slasher. That ruins the strategy that Orlando employed a year ago. Orlando still tries the old plan, but now Carter is shooting threes like never before. He's not making them -- shooting just 30 percent so far this year (Turkoglu is shooting 40 percent from behind the arc this year). Even worse, if they tell Carter to slash towards the basket, Howard can't dominate the lower block. Howard is averaging just nine shots per game lately, which is way too low. On Monday night, Howard was his old self: 24 points on 10-of-14 shooting. But overall, his scoring has been way down. In nine of their last 15 games, Howard has scored 13 points or less.
Of course, Magic coach Stan Van Gundy isn't buying any of this.
"We started the season 17-4," Van Gundy said before the game. "Nobody had any chemistry problems then. Chemistry doesn't usually go backwards. The truth is we just aren't playing well -- collectively. That's really what it is. Nobody on our team is playing well right now."
I think the problem is bigger than that. The whole thing is comparable to putting Shaq on the Suns last year. He clogged up the space that all the rest of the Suns used to score all of those points. Carter, like Shaq was, is a square peg in a round hole.
Speaking of Shaq, he's one of the reasons that Orlando won't get out of the East this year. In the playoffs, Cleveland can put Shaq on Howard down low, and they won't have to double-team him. After losing in six games to the Magic last year (and it should have been five -- remember, LeBron hit a miracle buzzer-beater in game 2), the Cavs easily beat Orlando earlier this season in Florida.
I think it's a two team race in the East, Cleveland and Boston. If the Celtics stay healthy, I'll give them a slight edge (but that's a huge if). I'm not sure Atlanta isn't the next best team, and I think the Magic have dropped to fourth.
Next up for the Lakers: the toughest road trip of the year. Eight games in 12 days, including stops in Cleveland and Boston. Last year, they went 6-0 on a similar trip, setting the tone for a championship season. Up first are the Cavs -- this Thursday night.