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Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Basketball 24/7 ... Thoughts before Game 3

As recently as the 2006 NBA Finals, a team with a locker room full of character was facing a 2-0 deficit in the best-of-seven game championship series.

By Terry Lyons.

That team, the Miami Heat of Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal fame, came back to take the league title in a thrilling and memorable manner, toasting with pricey bottles of champagne while lighting victory cigars after an impressive and relentless dispatching of the Dallas Mavericks of Texas in six games.

The Heat, down 2-0 in that 2006 title series, took it to extreme measures as they battled back from a 13-point deficit late in the pivotal Game 3 while unearthing championship level qualities of team character, team defense, trust and the ability to properly face adversity while they served as proximity witness to the total collapse of their opponent, the Mavs.

In that series, Dallas team owner Mark Cuban lit a spark of over-confidence in a champagne room while fanning a flame of arrogance when his team took the early series lead. The Mavericks self-imploded as they dropped the final four consecutive games of the series while former Dallas Coach Avery Johnson, watching helplessly, bucked like a broken bronco as he attempted to re-start the team's jet-engines only to find them failing miserably as his club fell from the sky. Johnson, trying to defend his team's honour and acting in a fit of absolute despair, did the one and only thing that he thought would work. He called out a "mayday" on his local beat reporter, and immediately losing the respect of the entire basketball world of fans, friends, innocent bystanders and observers, including his own players (thank you, Dirk) when he called out and blamed the media.

The Heat seized the moment, jumped on the opportunity and stepped up to fight the fight with Wade leading the charge while Shaq and Zo (Alonzo Mourning) took on the twin-engine role as commanders when they led their team to the promised land of NBA dreams.

Can the young Orlando Magic accomplish the same feat? We'll see tonight when the Magic play host to Game 3 of the 2009 NBA Finals on their own home court, while simultaneously pitching some Amway products from downtown Orlando, a Orange County speed-trap an hour or so from the place where dreams are made, Walt Disney World.

The Magic will have to scale a daunting 2-0 (deficit) wall without the aid of an opponent who is self-destructing. Unlike the Cuban-crisis Mavericks of '06, the LA Lakers have "been there" before. The experienced former NBA Most Valuable Player, Kobe Bryant, is saying all the right things as the two teams trekked cross country from the city of Angels to the land of make believe in hum-drum central Florida.

Bryant is seeking his fourth NBA championship and a place alongside his two main rivals in former teammate Shaquille O'Neal and San Antonio Spurs frontman Tim Duncan, the trio who can claim the title of the most dominant NBA players of the last 10 basketball seasons. During that time, Bryant managed to earn a gold medal with the 2008 USA Basketball Olympic team while O'Neal (winner of gold in the 1994 World Championship in Toronto plus the1996 Olympic Games in Hot-lanta) and Duncan (a bronzed goose egg with the 2004 USA team). Lebron James, you might wonder, has only a 0-4 showing in the 2007 NBA Finals to show on his 'big-game' resume. (Note to 24/7 readers: Mr. James, the clock is officially running, as of now).

The Lakers, anchored by a low-post offensive threat from Catalonia's very best in Pau Gasol, are showing signs of improvement as they press into the final round of the NBA playoff marathon. Gasol, together with defensive team anchor Lamar Odom, are impressive both offensively and defensively. Meanwhile, the LA backcourt has thoroughly outplayed the Magic guards which is forcing Magic head coach Stan Van Gundy to re-work his lineup to play 6-10 swingman Hedo Turkoglu of Turkey at the point-forward position in an attempt to mix-up the match-ups and force the Lakers into changes in their rotations.

So, as Game 3 fast approaches, the questions are easy and they are these:

Will home-court change the tide of the 2009 NBA Finals as the Magic return to their downtown O-Rena home?

Will Dwight Howard step-up in a big-time way and show the kind of character that true champions are made of?

Will Rafer Alston and Jameer Nelson be able to pick themselves up off the canvas and play at an NBA Finals championship level against a veteran point guard like Derek Fisher of the Lakers?

Will Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis bring on an offensive barrage to knock the Lakers off balance?

Can the Magic become only the fourth team in NBA history to battle back from an 0-2 deficit to win a Finals? Or even more basic, will the Magic get the proverbial 'monkey off their back' and finally win their very first NBA Finals game - after six attempts have gone south (0-4 to Houston in 1995 and 0-2 to the current LA Lakers)?

They have the man, as Howard is a proven Olympic champion but Bryant is the champion of champions and many of the Lakers are multi-time NBA champions. And, remember this nearly biblical and certainly historical quotation from the one-and-only Rudy T, the great coach of the NBA champion Houston Rockets:

"Don't ever underestimate the heart of a champion."

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