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NBA Finals - Game 4 recap

L.A. Lakers 99, Orlando 91 (OT) - Lakers lead series, 3-1
Barring a miracle, Kobe Bryant will get his Shaq-free crown. Unless the Los Angeles Lakers get a massive case of food poisoning that sabotages their collective health for a full week, Phil Jackson will coach his tenth NBA champion from the bench, and a proud franchise will collect its 15th league title.
Why are the Lakers leading a competitive series by a 3-1 margin after a Thursday night thriller that spilled into Friday morning in Amway Arena? Quite simply, the Orlando Magic choked.
It was all falling into place for the underdogs from Florida. Up 87-82 with just 40 seconds left in the fourth quarter, it appeared that the Eastern Conference champions would knot the NBA Finals at two games apiece, ensuring a Game 6 and, more importantly, earning a shot to grab a series lead heading back to Hollywood. Despite an abundance of missed free throws and a truckload of turnovers, the Magic--behind two huge baskets from Hedo Turkoglu (25 points on the night)--regained their footing after the Lakers used a 30-14 third quarter to pull ahead at the beginning of the final stanza. With Kobe (32 points on 31 shot attempts) not hitting shots in the final minutes of regulation, Orlando earned another possession with one minute remaining. When guard Jameer Nelson wisely eschewed a drive to the basket, and pulled the ball to the top of the key to drain the clock down to the 40-second mark, everyone in Amway had to be thinking that an even-steven series was in the offing. Considering that Orlando failed to win Game 2 of the finals only because of a missed layup at the end of regulation, a 2-2 tussle would have accurately measured the competitiveness of this best-of-seven showdown.
Instead, the Lakers stole yet another overtime win from the grasp of Stan Van Gundy's gutted group. In a meltdown of season-defining proportions, the Magic disappeared from the team that so coolly closed out the Cleveland Cavaliers two weeks before.
When the Magic failed to score on their 87-82 offensive possession, no one had reason to be concerned. Even when Orlando allowed a transition basket to L.A. big man Pau Gasol with 31.9 seconds left, Game 4 still rested firmly in the hands of the home team. It was only when the clock ticked down to a final few seconds that all hell broke loose in the Sunshine State.
With 11.4 seconds remaining, Orlando center Dwight Howard was fouled by Kobe underneath the basket. Howard, a notoriously weak foul shooter, had actually improved his free throw shooting so much that he eclipsed LeBron James at the charity stripe during the fourth quarter of a few games in the Eastern Conference finals. Tasting the 70th percentile on some occasions and the mid-60s on others, Howard made the forward strides characteristic of a superstar who realizes the magnitude of a moment. The deeper his team played into the NBA postseason, the better Dwight Howard became at the foul line in crunch time. When big No. 12 stepped to the line at the end of Game 4, he only needed to split a pair of shots to make his team an almost-certain winner. The next step in the evolution of a great player was about to be taken; the best part for Howard was the fact that he didn't even need to hit both foul shots to be the hero. The same man who posted a triple-double in this game (16 points, 21 boards, 10 blocks) just had to shoot 50 percent.
He missed both. And then things REALLY went south for the franchise whose longtime fans had to be thinking of Game 1 of the 1995 NBA Finals against the Houston Rockets.
Fourteen years ago, Orlando wing player Nick Anderson missed two free throws late in the fourth quarter to allow Hakeem Olajuwon's Rockets to steal the opener of that series, and roll to an eventual sweep. Thursday in the same building that witnessed Anderson's agonies, Howard's two bricks became similarly fatal, but only because of the events that followed them.
After a Laker timeout, Jackson opted to have the ball inbounded in backcourt. Kobe received the inbounds pass, but had to give up the ball before the midcourt line. A pair of passes put the ball in the hands of Laker guard Derek Fisher--a veteran of the franchise's championship teams at the beginning of this decade--with roughly 5 seconds to go. Inexplicably, the Magic--specifically Nelson, who played the fourth quarter in place of fellow guard Rafer Alston--sagged away from the 3-point line in an 87-84 contest, and didn't give a foul. Fisher--amazed at his good fortune, and the ability to have a free shooting hand--nailed a triple to tie the score at 87-all with 4.6 seconds left. When Orlando's Mickael Pietrus (15 points off the bench) missed at the buzzer, Magic fans didn't know which game to think about more: Game 1 in '95 against Houston, or Game 2 of this series from this past Sunday at Staples Center?

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Either way, the home folks knew--as did their hardwood heroes--that the challenger had the favorite on the ropes, only to once again give the Lakers new life.
The extra period acquired the feeling of a foregone conclusion, to the surprise of absolutely nobody.
Fisher--who finished with 12 points and teamed with Trevor Ariza (16 points) to spark the Lakers during a bold second-half surge--knocked down another 3-pointer to break a 91-all tie with 31 seconds left, and when the Magic failed to score in the final half minute, a series that could read 3-1 Orlando, and should at least stand at 2-2, now has the Lake Show up 3-1, and closing in on an almost-certain championship.
One could say, from an Orlando-based perspective, that the Magic should be leading this series. Coulda-woulda-shoulda, however, is one of the oldest and lamest lamentations in the world of sports. Sure, the Lakers are incredibly fortunate to find themselves up 3-1, but say this much about the Phil and Kobe crew: When Orlando has indeed allowed them to get off the canvas and climb back to the corner chair, the Lakers have taken advantage. Sometimes, an NBA champion is crowned by dint of its overwhelming excellence--these lads from Los Angeles don't quite fit the bill. In other instances, however, NBA champs emerge only because their opponent can't close the deal. Perhaps L.A. isn't wowing the basketball world, but the Orlando Magic--given every chance to steal this finals series--have insisted that the Western Conference champions should take the lead in basketball's ultimate showcase.
Go ahead, knock the Lakers and rip Kobe for coming up empty late in games. You'll only be wasting your breath, much as the Orlando Magic have wasted a ton of opportunities in the 2009 NBA Finals. The Lake Show deserves to be one game away from a world championship; it's just not for the kinds of reasons a basketball fan would typically expect.


By Matt Zemek
Pro-Basketball Fans staff-writer

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