Dwight Howard toed the line with about 20 seconds remaining in the game. The old reliable is not the best free throw shooter in the world, but in this series he had come through. And in this game he had come through in a big way defensively, turning in one of the great defensive performances in the NBA Finals' history.
Howard, just announced as the cover boy for NBA Live '10, needed only one foul shot to go in to give Orlando the four-point cushion it needed to survive any Lakers' late-game heroics. Hedo Turkoglu ensured that, scoring five straight points in the minute and 30 seconds before then.
His first free throw... no good. His second, same result. Lakers ball with 11 seconds left.
That deep sinking feeling every Magic fan had in the Amway Arena started to develop. Orlando did a good job keeping Kobe Bryant from handling the ball, but Derek Fisher caught the inbounds on the run stopped at the 3-point line and with a Jameer Nelson hand in his face, buried it to tie the game and force overtime.
Once there, Fisher took advantage of some space given by an inadvertant elbow from Bryant to Nelson to bury a second three that gave Los Angeles a 94-91 edge with 30 seconds to play. Turkoglu's semi-desperation 3-point heave was no good. And unlike the Magic, the Lakers hit their free throws down the stretch for a 99-91 win in overtime.
As Turkoglu said, this one slipped out of Orlando's fingers and simply was no good. What could have and should have been a 2-2 series is now 3-1, with the Magic needing a desperation win on their home court to force a Game Six and two desperation wins at the Staples Center to win the title.
A tall order, even for a resilient team like Orlando.
It is easy to point at the culprits in this game. The Magic killed themselves throughout the second half. Turnovers and missed free throws helped turn a 12-point halftime lead into a tight game throughout the second half.
Fifteen missed free throws (22 of 37, that's good for 59.5 percent) and 17 turnovers do more than an adequate job telling the story of this game late.
Orlando did everything right in the first half.
The team was closing out on shooters and cutting off driving lanes. The Magic were getting to the basket and not settling for jumpers. It helped the Lakers were shooting below 40 percent and missing some good looks.
Orlando had to know Los Angeles would throw its best punch to begin the second half. That is often when the Magic themselves likes to make their comebacks.
So with the Lakers making a more concerted effort to attack the basket and Trevor Ariza hitting some nice jumpers, they were on the comeback trail. Hedo Turkoglu picked up his fourth foul early and the paint became Laker land. Nothing went in unless it was deflected or knocked around.
Howard, who turned in one of the best defensive performances in NBA Finals history with 16 points, 21 rebounds and an NBA Finals record nine blocks, was as frustrated as he was in the first two games of this series in the second half.
When Los Angeles made its run in the third quarter, I knew Orlando was in trouble. But to the team's credit, it stayed with it and made the comeback when it needed to make it a game in the fourth quarter. The Magic could have closed down again. But they did not.
They just could not finish in the end.
I do not know how to describe this game any other way. It was frustrating to watch Orlando struggle to execute and finish this game. It was clear Orlando can beat this team and win games. The Magic just lack something to finish these games.
They will have to figure out something soon. Sunday could be the last game of the year.
2 days ago