NBA Finals ESPN Insider Request...

Aug 2, 2006

[h3]Free throws, Jameer Nelson: More reasons the Lakers are the call to win the NBA title[/h3]
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By John Hollinger

Fernando Medina/NBAE/Getty ImagesJameer Nelson could have another reunion with Trevor Ariza. Would it make a difference?

We've talked about a couple of different angles to the NBA Finals during the past few days, but we have yet to address the most important one -- who Ithink will win and why.

For those who haven't checked out our experts' predictions, I'vetaken the Lakers in six; nine of's 10 NBA correspondents also picked Los Angeles. Of course, we're the same geniuses who unanimously pickedCleveland over Orlando, so take our predictions with a grain of salt.

Either way, I expect the Finals to be competitive and home-court advantage to be a relatively small factor. L.A. had the best road record in the leagueduring the regular season, and Orlando's home-road splits during the past two seasons have been as small as any other team's, so I won't besurprised if the road team wins three or four games. I'm guessing Orlando would have to win twice in L.A. to take the crown, and L.A. would have to win atleast once and possibly twice in Orlando.

But at the end, I do expect the Lakers to hold up the trophy. Let's look at a few reasons why:

Dwight Howard will regress to the mean from the line. Howardshot 59.4 percent from the stripe during the regular season. He's a 60.1 percent shooter for his career and made 61.1 percent of his attempts during thefirst two rounds of the playoffs. Any direction you come at it, he's basically a 60 percent free-throw shooter.

But in the upset of Cleveland, he shot 70.1 percent, making 47 of 67 from the stripe. That was huge in particular during Game 4, which the Magic won inovertime in part because Howard made 7 of 9 free-throw shots. But such a phenomenon is unlikely to continue in the Finals.

We have a tendency to look at short hot streaks from the line and think a player has improved, when often it's just because of random chance. TakeShaquille O'Neal, for instance. About 20 different times during his career, he hashad stretches when he has shot free throws somewhat competently, and people have written stories along the lines of "Shaq's making his free throws!This changes everything!"

In retrospect, it's easy to see those were just random variations. The same applies to Howard. I don't think he suddenly improved his free-throwshooting before the conference finals. And if so, we can expect him to regress to his usual charity-stripe performance during the Finals.

Orlando can't count on free-throw "defense." Holding Cleveland down in other ways was a great sign of the Magic'sdefensive ability. Holding Cleveland to 70.6 percent from the line, however, was pure luck. The Cavs missed 53 free throws in six games. Had they maintainedtheir usual 75.7 percent accuracy, they would have scored nine more points in the series and probably could have swung the outcome of Game 1 or Game 4 in theirfavor. The Lakers shot 77 percent from the line during the regular season, and presumably, the Magic can't count on L.A. to suddenly shoot 5 percentagepoints worse than its norm during the Finals.

L.A. has been the better team since Jameer Nelson went out.When Nelson went out of the lineup, the Magic were playing as well as or better than any team in the league, and had hit the top of my power rankings. Sincethen, they haven't been quite as imposing. By the season's end, they were fourth in my rankings, and their scoring margin in the second half of theseason wasn't nearly as impressive. They were 23-12 after losing Nelson but 36-11 before.

And as good as Orlando looked in the conference finals against Cleveland, it was up-and-down in the first two rounds while needing 13 games to dismiss aflawed Philadelphia team and a hurting Boston club.

L.A., meanwhile, has been a bit more consistent. The Lakers played nearly as well after Andrew Bynum's injury as they did before it (pre-injury record 37-9, post-injury 25-7,3-1 upon his return), and although their second-round performance against Houston caught them some flak, they won four times by huge margins. Plus, in theconference finals, they took out what was arguably the hottest team in the league in Denver and did it while shaking off nagging injuries to Lamar Odom and TrevorAriza.

All that was reflected in myprojection before the playoffs started -- L.A. won 58.2 percent of the simulations that predicted a Lakers-Magic Finals.

Orlando's head-to-head regular-season wins weren't convincing. Orlando won the Lakers-Magic head-to-head series 2-0, butthere's a big difference between this and the 2-1 edge the Magic had on Cleveland. In the latter series, both of Orlando's wins were lopsided affairs,including a 29-point win in April, while Cleveland's lone victory was barely scratched out at home.

But Orlando's two wins over L.A. were close affairs -- six-point and three-point victories. If you throw in a 117-113 win by L.A. last season when mostof the protagonists were in uniform, you don't get the impression that the matchups greatly favor Orlando.

If anything, it shows the two teams to be basically even -- if Nelson is healthy and playing (as he was in all three of those meetings). Speaking of which…

Nelson was key to Orlando's regular-season victories over L.A. I mentioned this Tuesday, and I think it bears repeating: Nelson wasthe guy who killed L.A. this season, yet he'll probably be a minor factor in this series. Although the Magic have considered using him, he hasn'tplayed competitively in four months and will be thrust into the highest level of basketball, so it's a little unrealistic to expect him to start dropping20 points a night.

Even in the absolute best-case scenario, in which Nelson would come back and immediately start filling it up, I'm still not sure I could pick Orlandocomfortably. Although he would give the Magic a major matchup edge at the point, where L.A. struggles to defend quick guards, the overall edge still points inL.A.'s direction.

One factor is home-court advantage. Although I don't think home-court with these two teams is as important as it would be in, say, a Utah-Portlandseries, a Game 7 in the Staples Center undoubtedly would favor the Lakers.

And one more thing:

Obama picked L.A. in six. The commander in chief picked North Carolina to win the NCAA men's college basketball tournament, so youhave to like his track record. I made my pick before he made his, but it's nice to know I'm in good company.

• Quick note from Magic public relations ace Joel Glass: Orlando will become the first team in NBA history to win three straight series against 60-win teamsif it can vanquish the Lakers in the Finals.

In fact, the Magic are already on pretty solid historical footing in that regard. They're one of only seven teams to beat two 60-win teams in apostseason, the most recent being the 2006 Miami Heat. They're also the second to beat two60-win teams before the Finals. The other team to do so was the 1995 Houston Rockets, the teamthat swept Orlando in its only other trip to the Finals.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.
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