Two Magical Years Later: Finals Foes Fight Again

I’ll remember the Western Conference Finals against the Denver Nuggets for two things.

One, ex-Laker Trevor Ariza’s steals in the clutch.

And two, the first time Kobe unveiled his ‘scowl’ after nailing a contested-three on JR Smith. Mark Jackson’s reaction to the shot was nearly as priceless as Kobe’s facial expression: “That’s how you tell 20,000 people to sit down and be quiet!” Needless to say, the Black Mamba scowled his way to the NBA Finals.

On a side note, would it not be genius for gimmick purposes for Kobe to grimace like a snake now that he’s officially known as the Black Mamba?

Up next for the Lakers was the NBA Finals. Lakers nation didn’t look forward to beating the Magic as much as they would have relished the chance to play against the KG-less Celtics to settle the score from 2008, but we all know that they would ultimately get their shot at revenge.

However, this Magic team was not to be taken lightly. In their series against the Cleveland Cavaliers, they frustrated LeBron James to no end and their cast of role players thoroughly out-played Cleveland’s. I remember debating with my friends whether or not that series would’ve been a sweep if LeBron didn’t hit his iconic catch and shoot three over an out-stretched Hedo Turkoglu at the buzzer to win Game 2.

Game 1 of the Finals set the tone for the rest of the series. It was clear from the get go which team had been to the Finals the previous year and were hungry to be back, and which team was content on making it that far (the Magic, who reached the Finals for the first time since 1995).

Everything went right for the Lakers in the first game: Kobe setting his career-high in the Finals with 40 points, coupled with Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol communally limiting Orlando’s biggest asset, Dwight Howard, to one basket were two keys in overwhelming Orlando 100-75.

Game 2 was much closer. The Magic came within a Courtney Lee alley-oop at the end of regulation to send the series back to Orlando knotted at one game apiece. But then Kobe and Pau connected on a memorable pick and roll that sealed the game for the Lakers in overtime.

The most-memorable moment of the series belonged to Derek Fisher in Game 4 with the Lakers down three. Out of a timeout, Fisher dribbled all the way down the court and pulled up over Jameer Nelson. The shot hit nothing but net to tie the game with just seconds remaining. The momentum of the series had shifted back to the Lakers with that one shot, and the Magic never got it back.

If anyone was to hit that shot I’m glad it was Fisher, because series after series Derek’s ability to guard the NBA’s elite point guards was brought into question. It seems that every year Fisher is questioned as being the Lakers’ weakest link; but every year he responds when it matters most. In 2009, with two of the biggest threes he’s hit in his career, and then in Game 3 of the 2010 NBA Finals when he recorded 11 fourth quarter points against the Celtics.

After the series it was the point guard situation in Orlando that was being intensively dissected by fans and media alike. Should Stan Van Gundy have stuck with Rafer Alston, the point guard who got them to the Finals, or go with the rusty Jameer Nelson, the point guard who torched the Lakers for 27 points in the regular season? Van Gundy rode the steady hand of Nelson, and many thought it cost him in the end.

The 2009 NBA Finals was the litmus test to Kobe Bryant’s legacy, and he passed with flying colors.

As the Lakers and the Magic get set for their 2009 Finals re-match tonight at Staples, both rosters have been revamped.

The Magic have replaced Rashard Lewis, Courtney Lee, Rafer Alston and Marcin Gortat with Ryan Anderson, the enigmatic Gilbert Arenas, Brandon Bass and Jason Richardson.

The Lakers essentially have a brand new bench that is not performing up to expectations as of late. As Bill Simmons remarked in his running diary of the Heat and Laker game last Thursday: “Steve Blake went into a shooting funk, Shannon Brown tailed off, Matt Barnes can’t stay healthy … I can’t believe I’m saying this, but they might actually miss Sasha Vujacic and his hairnet.”  (I knew I wasn’t the only one with a man crush on Sasha).

Even though both teams don’t look like they did back in 2009 tonight should be an exciting match-up. After the Magic beat up on the Lakers in Orlando last month Los Angeles will be looking to find a little revenge. With the improved play of Andrew Bynum this has the potential to be a great match-up between two of the league’s last true big men.

Get your popcorn ready and enjoy the potential NBA Finals preview.

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