This week, both the Lakers and Celtics took commanding two to nothing leads in the Western and Eastern Conference Finals respectively. The Celtics won both their games by not double teaming Dwight Howard, a keen strategy that has exposed the Orlando Magic. Their greatest strength is not their All World center, but their cavalcade of three point shooters. The Lakers won both their games by attacking the Suns at their weakest defensive position, center. The Cerberus of Gasol, Odom, and Bynum has proved too much for A’m’a’r’e’ Stoudemire, Jared Dudley, and Louis Amundson. The Magic and Suns are not without hope, though. There are counter tactics they can apply in hopes of pulling the series even, and making another Lakers versus Celtics Finals less of a sure thing.
The Magic rely heavily on inside-out offense to provide them with the three point shot attempts they so desperately need to win games. However, without double teams to Dwight Howard, and with the Celtics having 18 fouls to spend on him, they have not been able to get off the attempts they require. Instead of running inside-out basketball, or using Dwight Howard in pick and roll situations, the Magic should run pick and roll with Jameer Nelson and the Magic wings, Carter, Barnes, and Pietrus. A switch would allow Nelson to blow by Pierce or Allen, neither of whom can cover Nelson, for an easy layup, or a dump off to Howard when his man rotates. A double team on Nelson would open up the three point shot. Either way, the play removes one of the fundamental focuses of the Celtics defense. They cannot rotate to Nelson and foul Howard in time, nor can they double Nelson and defend the three point shot in time. At least, they cannot do so with their current level of defensive success.
The Suns already showed a bit of the strategy they need to implement in order to be more competitive against the Lakers. In the third quarter of game two, the Suns pulled even with the Lakers by playing small ball. They put Grant Hill at the power forward position, and out ran the Lakers down the floor after made and missed shots. They key for this strategy to work to be able to defend with a small lineup as well. An active zone defense keyed to the triangle offense, the 2-1-2 perhaps, would stifle the pass-based offense of the Lakers and force them to make perimeter shots – a tougher task in Phoenix than in L.A., especially for their key bench players Farmar and Brown. The zone would also make Stoudemire less of a defensive liability, as he would not be responsible for rotations he seems unable to make in time.
The task at hand looks tougher for the Suns than it does for the Magic. While the Suns have been beaten (so far) at their own game by the Lakers, the Magic have been taken out of theirs by the Celtics. The results have been relatively comfortable wins by the Lakers, and down-to-the-wire wins by the Celtics. Either way, it is clear that both teams require changes in their game play to have a chance to win their series. Counter tactics, though, propagate more counter tactics, and with both teams facing two to nothing deficits the situations look dire indeed.