— It’s not the climactic season-ending matchup that many observers had hoped for -- in which LeBron James would have faced Kobe Bryant with the NBA title and individual supremacy at stake -- but the 2009 NBA finals showdown between the Magic and Lakers still offers plenty of intrigue nonetheless. Here is a look at five keys to victory for Orlando -- making its first appearance in the finals since 1994-95 -- and the Lakers, looking to win their first title since 2002.
Paint by numbers
Dwight Howard was a havoc-wreaking force (25.8 points and 13.0 rebounds per game) against an overmatched Cavaliers tandem of Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Anderson Varejao in the Eastern Conference finals, but now he’ll have to dominate against Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, a duo that will make him expend considerably more effort on defense. Howard fouled out three times in six games against Cleveland, and staying out of foul trouble in the finals will be paramount. After all, for as much as Howard has lived up to the Superman label, backup Marcin Gortat is no super hero.
Be like Mike
Forget coming off the bench -- Magic sixth man Mickael Pietrus was the bench in Orlando's victory over Cleveland in the Eastern Conference finals. Not only did Pietrus average 13.8 points on 47.2 percent 3-point shooting, he also accounted for 61 percent of Orlando’s bench scoring and outscored the entire Cavs' bench, 83-66. For Orlando to have a legitimate shot against the Lakers, Pietrus needs to continue to show no conscience in hoisting 3s -- and more importantly, continue burying them at a lofty percentage -- while utilizing every remaining scrap of energy in an effort to slow down Kobe Bryant.
Make it rain
Rashard Lewis & Co. shot a formidable 40.1 percent from 3-point range in six games against the Cavaliers, including a particularly devastating 17-for-38 in a Game 4 win and 12-for-29 in the series-clinching Game 6. A timely Magic 3-pointer seemed to stifle a Cleveland run countless times during the Eastern Conference finals, and the long-distance barrage will remain a critical part of Orlando's attack -- the Magic attempted 26.2 3-pointers per game during the regular season, second only to the Knicks' 27.9.
Find the mismatch
Arguably the biggest factor in Orlando's win over Cleveland was the ability to constantly exploit a mismatch between either Hedo Turkoglu or Rashard Lewis and a Cleveland power forward (generally Anderson Varejao or Ben Wallace) who simply couldn't match the quicker Magic swingmen. Finding said mismatch won't be as easy with Lamar Odom showcasing far better lateral movement than the Cleveland power forwards, so the Magic will have to capitalize on the stretches when Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum are on the floor together.
Rafer Alston can be called many things, including his standard nickname of Skip to My Lou or, more simply, foolish (for smacking Celtics guard Eddie House in the dome and drawing a one-game suspension in the first round). But in terms of the recently concluded series against the Cavs, a more fitting label for the Magic point guard would be The Barometer. In Orlando's four wins, Alston averaged 17.0 points and shot 48.1 percent (13-of-27) from 3-point range. In the Magic's two losses, Captain Erratic averaged 3.5 points and shot a combined 1-for-10 from downtown. Whether Jameer Nelson makes a morale-boosting return from his separated shoulder, Alston will have to summon his positive mojo somewhere in the vicinity of four times for the Magic to capture the title.
Operation: Ignite Scoreboard
With the exception of a relatively quiet Game 5 (22 points on 6-of-13 shooting with eight assists and seven turnovers), Kobe Bryant's clear objective against the Nuggets in the Western Conference finals was to dominate as a scorer. Known at times to defer in an effort to get teammates involved, Bryant averaged 34.0 points on 21.8 shot attempts and 12.0 free-throw attempts per game against Denver. With an enticing matchup against rookie Courtney Lee (at least until Mickael Pietrus enters the game), look for Kobe to be as relentless as ever in his effort to win his first NBA title in seven years.
Generally an outstanding marksman and connoisseur of the timely 3-pointer (39.7 percent in the regular season), Derek Fisher was largely AWOL in the Western Conference finals against Denver, averaging just 7.0 points on 34.0 percent from the field and 30.0 percent (6-for-20) from 3-point range. With Kobe Bryant commanding so much attention, Fisher is bound to get open looks, and considering Orlando's propensity to cast away from long distance, some of the onus will be on Fisher to help balance out the 3-point differential.
The silent assassin
Trevor Ariza has yet to hit double-digit field-goal attempts in any game this postseason, and it is exactly that frugal approach that has made him so valuable. Meshing perfectly with Kobe Bryant's ball-controlling tendencies, the quietly efficient swingman has averaged 11.2 points on 53.8 percent shooting from the field and 45.2 percent (19-for-42) from 3-point range, not to mention a defensive-minded outlook that has netted 1.6 steals per game. It can be easy to overlook his nightly statistical output, but there's no questioning the impact Ariza has on the Los Angeles attack.
The importance of versatility
Lamar Odom averaged a career-low 11.4 points in 2008-09 while spending much of the season adjusting to an unfamiliar role off the bench, but the sixth-man role has suited him quite comfortably in the postseason thus far. Though his scoring remains down (partially a product of Kobe Bryant's hoist-at-all-costs mantra), Odom has averaged 9.8 points, 8.9 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in the playoffs while coming off the bench for 10 out of 13 games. His role becomes even more critical against the Magic, whose starting forward tandem of Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis will force the Lakers to play Odom extensively at power forward to avoid matchup trouble. And unlike Cleveland's Anderson Varejao and Ben Wallace -- who were so consistently overmatched against the versatile Orlando forwards -- Odom has the foot speed and perimeter defensive aptitude to keep up.
Though the aforementioned defensive conundrum represented by Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis will force the Lakers to go relatively small for much of each game, Andrew Bynum could still play a critical role in the series. Still in search of the dominant form he harnessed before a January knee injury, Bynum averaged just 7.8 points in 20 minutes per game in the Western Conference finals. However, the 21-year-old has the size and ability to give Dwight Howard trouble in his limited playing time. Any foul he can draw or any additional effort he can extract from the Magic centerpiece will be crucial. So even though the Lakers' biggest individual isn't guaranteed huge minutes, he still has a chance to make a sizable impact over the course of the best-of-seven series.