NBA Finals - Game 3 recap
Orlando 108, L.A. Lakers 104 -- Lakers lead series, 2-1
On Tuesday night, the good people of Orlando, Fla., had to wait until just after 9 p.m. local time to see their first NBA Finals game in 14 years. The residents of this Sunshine State city, done no favors by the dynamics of television programming, had to stick around Amway Arena until 11:54 p.m. in order to witness the emergence of a winner and a loser.
Safe to say, a crowd's immense patience was rewarded.
Orlando's sleep-deprived citizens might not have a productive Wednesday at the office, but they'll certainly find themselves in a happy frame of mind after their beloved Magic claimed the first NBA Finals win in franchise history. When the Orlando franchise made its first foray to the finals in 1995, the Houston Rockets swept their way to a 4-0 series victory against Shaquille O'Neal, Nick Anderson, Penny Hardaway, Horace Grant, and the rest of a Magic-al roster that lost its mojo in crunch time. A decade and a half later, seemingly little had changed except for the names on the back of the team's mellow blue jerseys.
After two losses in Los Angeles, the 2009 edition of the Magic was about to be broomed out of another world championship series. Much as Nick Anderson missed a pair of free throws that would have won Game 1 of the '95 Finals against Houston, this year's Orlando team failed to grab an early series win when guard Courtney Lee missed a layup in the final second of Game 2 at Staples Center. Winning world titles partly requires an ability to elevate one's performance beyond normal regular-season levels, but for the Magic, the failure to make the simplest of plays was most centrally responsible for the club's 0-6 NBA Finals record heading into Game 3. The Eastern Conference champions, though intent on winning the whole ball of wax, merely needed to secure one win before they could go any further. A superb season needed at least one final(s) triumph to validate all the accomplishments Stan Van Gundy's group has amassed.
Now, that small but meaningful milepost has been reached, and it's all because Orlando played every bit as well as it did in eliminating LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers from the playoffs a few weeks ago.
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The not-so-secret reason why the Magic finally found the winner's circle in a finals game was the ability to shoot with incredible consistency. After pulling a 30-percent clunker from the field in Game 1 and then hitting a pedestrian 42 percent of field-goal attempts in Game 2, the home team gave its night-owl crowd reason to cheer by knocking down 63 percent of its shots (40-of-64). Made comfortable by Amway Arena's familiar shooting environment, five different Orlando players hit more than 50 percent of their deliveries. Rashard Lewis went 8-of-14 from the field, while teammate Hedo Turkoglu went 7-of-12 and Dwight Howard went 5-of-6, and 11-of-16 from the foul line. Those three stat lines might not be surprising, given the fact that Lewis, Turkoglu and Howard have carried the load for the Magic throughout their playoff run; however, the Magic's three tallest starters had help this time around.
Indeed, Orlando's big guns were backed up by a pair of performers who stunk up the joint in each of the first two games in Los Angeles. Guard Rafer Alston bounced back from a nightmare weekend in Hollywood to go 8-of-12 from the field, while sixth man Mickael Pietrus--who, in L.A., was a shell of the sharpshooter who gunned down Cleveland in the East finals--converted 7 of his 11 shots on the evening. All told, the quintet of Lewis, Turkoglu, Howard, Alston and Pietrus combined for 98 points, with no player scoring fewer than 18 yet no more than 21. With the Magic able to move the ball to the post, the wings, and then into the lane off dribble penetration, Team Van Gundy attacked the Lakers' slow-footed defense from all angles and--even more importantly--converted good looks at the goal when they emerged. From start to finish, the beast of the East played a high-level game at the offensive end of the floor, and as Game 3 unfolded, it turned out that the Magic needed every one of their buckets to finally break through in the finals.
The Lakers, for all of Orlando's torrid shooting, stayed extremely close on the scoreboard for the entirety of the night because they hit 51 percent of their own field goal tries, which is usually good enough to post a "W." With big man Pau Gasol going 9-of-11 from the field (23 points) and bench performers Lamar Odom and Jordan Farmar combining to hit 8 of 12 shots, the Lakers--receiving solid contributions from their role players--rode Kobe Bryant's 31 points to stay competitive despite the Magic's remarkable barrage. As this beautifully-played game--a far cry from the previous two editions of the series--careened toward its conclusion, the team that could produce a big defensive stop would walk away as the winner.
In the final half minute, Orlando made its first strong statement in this best-of-seven battle.
With the Magic leading, 104-102, at the 28-second mark of regulation, Howard and Pietrus doubleteamed Kobe and created a loose ball. Gasol pounced on the rock in an ensuing scrum, but when the Spaniard tried to pass the ball back to Bryant, Pietrus stepped into the passing lane for the steal. Two made free throws pushed the lead to four, and the Lakers would not be heard from again. Not in Game 3, at any rate.
And so, the 2009 Finals remain in doubt as Game 4 approaches on Thursday. Three years ago, another Eastern Conference champion from the state of Florida managed to win each of the middle three home games in this 2-3-2 setup, as the Miami Heat caught fire and smoked the Dallas Mavericks. On the strength of this terrific Game 3 effort, the Magic have a chance to carry their momentum into Game 4 and turn this tussle into a best-of-three affair. Will Orlando have to shoot 63 percent once again to win? Will Kobe Bryant go only 5-of-10 at the foul line as he did in Game 3? Will the Lakers find defensive answers? Can Orlando win ugly and grind down the Lake Show in a defensive battle? These are just some of the questions on the minds of pundits as these finals move forward.
One thing's for certain, though: We have a series, and not a quick coronation for Kobe and Company.
By Matt Zemek
Pro-Basketball Fans staff-writer
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