Pau Gasol is an underrated defender. While Bynum will get the starting nod on Dwight, I expect him to rack up fouls quicker than it takes Dan Hung to whip up his salty squid. So Gasol will find himself defending Dwight for most of the time, and this isn’t a terrible mismatch for the Lakers despite what everyone thinks. I watched Rasheed Wallace defend Dwight Howard superbly in two straight post-seasons, Sheed being a few inches smaller than Dwight and also giving up a few pounds. But Sheed was terrific at denying Dwight the ball in certain-death positions on the floor, and also had a knack for stopping Dwight from getting his own offensive rebounds. All the while Sheed never got in foul trouble, and when he went down the other end and started draining 20-footers, you could see Dwight start to drop his head. Sheed was brilliant on Dwight because of his positioning, his ball-denial, his ability to play him straight up, his beard, his smarts, and his offensive versatility. I see similar qualities in Gasol, who makes up for his athleticism and strength with his brain and his beard. Dwight has of course improved since those two series against Detroit, he can go left and right effectively now and his running hook is a lot more reliable. But ultimately LA isn’t concerned about stopping Dwight – they just want to be comfortable they can leave someone to defend him one-on-one.
To use another Pistons analogy, when facing LA in 2004 and Miami in 2005, we used Ben Wallace against Shaq in single cover. At the time he was the only guy in the league who could effectively defend Shaq by himself. The freedom this gave our other defenders was invaluable. Instead of worrying about double-teaming the Diesel, they could focus on Wade and Kobe and the three-point shooters. Pau Gasol is not Ben Wallace, but Dwight Howard is certainly a modern day Shaq, and the Lakers championship hopes will depend squarely on how well they can cover the big man without resorting to the double team.
This of course is under the assumption Bynum continues to be as ineffective and foul-prone as he has all playoffs – not an unlikely scenario. But if Bynum does manage to stay in the game, the most important and imbalanced match up of these Finals emerges. Gasol vs Lewis. Enough has been said on countless sites/blogs about how each of these guys can exploit the other’s weaknesses, so I won’t dwell on it too much. But I will make a couple of points. Firstly, Rashard Lewis by nature, is not a dominant player – this is both a blessing and a dilemma for Orlando. There were games against Cleveland where Rashard barely showed up, barely demanded the ball, and then curiously started hitting dagger threes late in the fourth. Gasol is not dissimilar. I’ve watched too many Lakers games these playoffs where he doesn’t get enough of the ball, but because he’s so damn efficient when he does, the Lakers still come out on top. The difference in the two, is that when the Lakers go through Gasol they look unbeatable. For Orlando, Lewis simply doesn’t have that impact. What’s more, Gasol seems to be intent at getting more touches as these playoffs go on, calling out his coach and teammates during the Nuggets series, and in the post Game 6 interview talking about how “we have a really good team and need to use everybody” – I interpreted that as a clear dig in Kobe’s direction. Gasol has had his toughness and aggression questioned, and to me it seems like he’s ready to respond to the critics. Lining up in the post with Lewis defending him will be his perfect opportunity.
Rashard Lewis can’t afford to be as patient in this series as he was against Cleveland. He needs to attack Gasol from the start, get him in foul trouble, and start draining threes to demand perimeter attention. If he isn’t assertive you can bet Gasol will go to work down the other end, forcing Stan Van Gundy into a very awkward position. See, if Rashard is blowing by Gasol and causing trouble for the Lakers, Phil Jackson simply has to switch Pau to center and bring on Odom, who is a natural match up for Lewis. But the reverse situation for Orlando is not such an easy fix. If Gasol is having his way with Lewis, Coach Van Gundy has little choice but to switch Dwight onto him, which is obviously a major problem if Bynum stays on the floor. I know I used the word “If” about five times there, but in my opinion, no matter how many ways you want to slice and dice it, the Lakers always have an extra move, an extra piece up their sleeve.
And here’s where everything I’ve just said goes out the window. Every move and match up I just talked about, and indeed the entire series, hinges upon one thing – the Lakers ability to play Dwight mano-e-mano. If they aren’t able to do that, if Bynum keeps serving up turds and Gasol gets posterized too often or if both of them get into foul trouble, the Lakers are at Dwight’s mercy. See Game 6 Orlando vs Cleveland for what it looks like when a team is at Dwight’s mercy. What impressed me most about Dwight in that game – apart from the fact he physically, mentally and spiritually dominated the entire state of Ohio – was his patience and his passing. It was Shaq-like circa 2000-2002. It was finesse, balance, vision, power, justice, Mabo, the vibe… it was all those things. The Lakers cannot let Dwight dictate terms like that – they would much rather see him trying to take on Gasol/Bynum one-on-one and get 40 every game. Because I question the other Orlando’s players ability to get hot in this game without Dwight feeding them. Can Turkoglu, Alston or Lewis generate enough points for themselves on iso’s, broken plays and free throws? This was the killer during the Kobe-Shaq days: teams would accept giving up 40 to Shaq if it meant shutting out most of his teammates, but Kobe could still score 30 on you by himself. It almost amounted to insult. If the Lakers go for single coverage on Dwight like I think they will, Orlando really needs someone to take that initiative on offense and to find their own shot, rather than standing on the three point line waiting for Dwight to give it up.
Total IF count: 11