Blistering the nets for 75% in the first half, and 63% for the game to set a new Finals record, the Orlando Magic withstood a furious rally in the 4th quarter and handed the Los Angeles Lakers a 108-104 loss at Amway Arena. The Magic offense finally found its range and torched the Lakers in the second quarter when they shot 81%. Led by Rashard Lewis, (21 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists), and Dwight Howard, (21 points, 14 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 blocked shots, 1 steal), the Magic also got key contributions from Rafer Alston, (20 points, 4 assists, 2 rebounds), Hedo Turkoglu, (18 points, 7 assists, 6 rebounds, 1 steal), and reserve player Mickael Pietrus, (18 points, 2 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 steals), who had a key steal off of Kobe Bryant late in the game to secure the victory. The typically unflappable Bryant, (31 points, 8 assists, 3 rebounds), tried to split the double team off a high pick and roll, only to have Howard poke the ball free. Pau Gasol dove on the floor and regained possession of the ball and passed it out to a fumbling Bryant, who was then forced to foul Pietrus with the Lakers trailing the Magic 104-102 with just over :16 seconds left to play.
The Lakers came out focused in the 1st quarter and each time the Magic tried to take the game away, they fought back and managed to maintain their lead. Kobe started quiet but over the last 5:17 of the period amassed 17 points to give the Lakers a 31-27 advantage at the end of one. Kobe even converted a 4-point play, faking Pietrus into jumping on a pump-fake, then absorbing the hit and nailing a three pointer. But the Magic persevered and behind Rafer Alston, whom to this point in the series had struggled with his shot, began forcing the issue and reverted to his “Skip-to-my-Lou” persona. After he hit his first outside shot, he grew more and more confident. He attacked the basket and had Derek Fisher on his heels as he converted on acrobatic shots close to the hoop. The home setting also did wonders for Turkoglu as he connected on off balance fade-aways with Laker defenders flailing in his face. That the Lakers had the lead after the 1st quarter was a surprise in itself as missed opportunities at the charity stripe would plague them throughout the game.
The Magic made an incredible 81% of their shots in the 2nd quarter even though they weren’t hitting their three point attempts. For the game, they shot a manageable 5-14 from behind the arc for 35.7%. But their perimeter game was unstoppable and the Magic continued to hit every mid-range shot they took. Lewis got untracked and was able to keep the Lakers at bay as the hometown crowd finally had something to cheer about. Gasol, (23 points, 3 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal, 2 blocked shots), tried to keep the Lakers close, but Alston and Howard were able to penetrate deep into the paint for easy buckets. Lamar Odom, (11 points, 2 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 teal, 1 blocked shot), and Andrew Bynum, (4 points, 4 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal), could not counter on the offensive end and had their hands full, trying to keep Howard from establishing deep position. Kobe cooled considerably but Jordan Farmar, (11 points, 3 rebounds), off the bench kept the Lakers within striking distance. The Lakers ended the first half trailing only 59-54 even though Orlando had shattered the Finals field goal percentage for a half.
The 3rd period opened with the teams trading baskets. Orlando managed to push the lead to 8-points, but the Lakers fought back behind treys by Kobe and Trevor Ariza, (13 points, 7 rebounds, 2 steals, 1 assist). Missed free throws continued to be an issue as the Lakers converted on 1-2 on almost every attempt. Kobe shot an uncharacteristic 5-10 from the line, Odom was 3-5 and Ariza was 1-2. Howard, the much improved free throw shooter in the playoffs, connected on 11-16 and the Magic as a team converted 23-30 for 76.7%. The Lakers shot a miserable 16-26 for 61.5%. But even as the Lakers were unable to regain the lead, they managed to stay in the game by chipping away point by point. The 3rd quarter ended with the Magic holding onto a 81-75 lead.
The 4th quarter saw Odom attacking the basket and scoring on post up moves on Lewis. A trey by Ariza and a basket by Farmar narrowed the Magic lead as the sell-out crowd began to get nervous. Orlando got key baskets from Turkoglu and maintained a 5-point advantage. Kobe, who sat the first 4:47 of the period, re-entered the contest and the Lakers made their last push. Gasol converted on a pair of free throws to knot the score at 99-99 with 2:41 left in the contest. The Lakers had the Magic scrambling on offense and after a long heave by Lewis, Pietrus cut through traffic to jam in the offensive rebound. The Lakers pleaded for offensive interference to no avail. The Lakers got another pair of free throws from Gasol, but Lewis connected on a long bucket with his toe on the line to give Orlando a 104-101 lead. Kobe was fouled on a drive to the basket by Howard, but only converted on 1 of 2 free throws. The Lakers forced the Magic into a poor shot by Lewis, who shot the ball off the side of the backboard, then tipped it out of bounds. The Lakers called time out to set-up the play for Bryant, only to see him lose the ball to Pietrus. After Pietrus’ two free throws made the score 106-102, the Lakers still had an opportunity to close the gap, but Kobe’s three point attempt went wide right. Ariza was able to get off another trey attempt, then another offensive rebound by the Lakers afforded Derek Fisher, (9 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal), a chance, but his shot caromed high off the backboard. Kobe grabbed the offensive rebound and put in a layup with :005 seconds left. Kobe immediately fouled Lewis on the inbounds play, but the Lakers were left with only :002 left in the game. Lewis converted his two free throws for the final margin of victory.
dEDGE Post Scriptum
Missed freebies from the line did in the Lakers. This loss wasn’t from a lack of effort, or poor energy. When a team is shooting as well as the Magic did, every missed opportunity is magnified. The best closer in the league just couldn’t get it done tonight. Phil Jackson mused when asked of Bryant’s difficulties from the line, “We’re all frail as humans, sometimes not as much as others.” Nerves of steel, cold-blooded, and the eyes of an assassin could not help Kobe at the line. Sometimes the ball just doesn’t go down. Sure, it would have been a stranglehold on the Magic had we escaped with a win tonight. But now we look forward to Game 4 on Thursday, and Game 5 on Sunday. We took Orlando’s best shot tonight and we still had a chance to win with :16 seconds to play. Orlando got the game that they needed to have and quite possibly have regained some of their lost confidence. But if I’m the Magic, I wouldn’t be celebrating too much. Kobe’s off night at the free throw line should not happen again in the series. The only people who benefitted from his 5-10 shooting from the line, are those brave enough, or drunk enough to have wagered on this line in Las Vegas. It’s a stupid bet, but hey, sometimes someone splits tens in Blackjack as well. To those few, I salute your fortunes. To those who would like to place that same wager in Game 4, show me the money.