So much for Kobe Bryant and LeBron James settling the who’s-best debate on the court.
The Lakers officially have an opponent in the NBA Finals, and it’s not the Cleveland Cavaliers, though the Orlando Magic will be more than last-second stand-ins, thanks to a horde of accurate long-range shooters and a tough-to-stop protagonist, center Dwight Howard.
The Lakers, however, are already in better shape than they were a year ago because they have home-court advantage in the Finals.
Games 1 and 2 are Thursday and next Sunday at Staples Center. The middle three games will be in Orlando, followed by the final two games back at Staples Center, depending on how many are needed in the best-of-seven series.
All the hand-wringing that accompanied the Lakers’ failure to secure home-court advantage throughout the playoffs disappeared amid a flurry of Orlando three-pointers Saturday, one of two ways the Magic erased Cleveland with a 103-90 victory in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals.
The other way, of course, was down low with Howard, who had 40 points and 14 rebounds to help make those LeBron-Kobe puppet commercials less relevant for the month of June.
There’s obviously no more internal bickering in Orlando about whether Howard is getting enough touches.
Howard now becomes the Lakers’ problem. He averaged 21.5 points and 16 rebounds against them as the Magic swept the two-game regular-season series.
“We’ve still got work to do,” Howard said Saturday after being handed a microphone to address Orlando fans after the conference-clinching victory. “I hope everybody starts believing in us because we’re going to keep working.”
After taking Saturday off, the Lakers will return to practice today to start figuring out how to stop Howard.
“Howard’s a real big dude,” forward Trevor Ariza said. “But we’ve got some big dudes too.”
The main line of defense will presumably be Andrew Bynum.
Bynum played in both regular-season games against the Magic, finishing with 14 points and three rebounds in the Lakers’ 109-103 home loss and only three points and one rebound in a foul-plagued effort in a 106-103 road loss.
“He’s a guy that you can’t let too far down in the lane,” Bynum said. “If you do, it’s going to be a problem.”
Bynum didn’t seem aggravated when reminded of his rough outing against Howard in December, when he amassed five fouls in under 12 minutes.
“That was when I was hearing whistles in my sleep for that part of the season,” Bynum said. “He’s a big body, he’s strong, he’s very athletic. He’s going to put pressure on everybody, but if we play team defense and move that ball on offense, I think we’ll be fine.”
Orlando hadn’t been to the Finals since Shaquille O’Neal helped make it happen in 1995, but the Magic returned again in front of its most high-profile courtside fan, Tiger Woods.
Magic forward Rashard Lewis easily led the league with 220 three-pointers during the regular season, making 21 more than the next player, Boston’s Ray Allen.
Hedo Turkoglu, Mickael Pietrus and trade-deadline pickup Rafer Alston are also three-point threats.
“They space the floor so well that you’ve got to prepare for them differently than pretty much every team you play,” Lakers forward Luke Walton said. “They’re kind of like the old Phoenix Suns of a couple years ago.”
Homemade “Beat L.A.” signs were already being brandished by Magic fans Saturday at Amway Arena, accompanied by the familiar chant of the same name.
The Lakers, despite their 0-2 record against the Magic this season, sound as if they’re ready to face Orlando, particularly after emerging from a tense, physical series against Denver.
“We played against physical players. We’ve faced everything already in the West,” Ariza said. “They’re going to be ready for sure. They’re well-coached. They’re going to shoot threes and they’re going to try and get the ball in the paint.”