L.A. Lakers 99, Orlando 91 (L.A. Lakers lead series 3-1)
Offensive Ratings: L.A. Lakers 105.4, Orlando 92.7
Basketball is a funny game sometimes. Derek Fisher's poor postseason has taken on epic proportions. He entered last night's Game Four of the NBA Finals shooting 27.1 percent from three-point range in the playoffs, and by the time the Lakers' final possession of regulation rolled around, he had missed all five of his tries from downtown. Yet it was Fisher who had the ball--and his team's destiny--in his hands in the waning seconds. With Stan Van Gundy deciding it was too early to foul and Jameer Nelson picking him up late, Fisher rose and drained the tying three-pointer to force overtime. In the extra session, it was Fisher's triple off a Kobe Bryant feed that untied the game and started a game-ending 8-0 Lakers run. Improbably, Fisher will end up one of the biggest heroes if the Lakers go on to win the championship.
The Lakers' role players were a key story of the game. In the first half, everyone besides Bryant and Pau Gasol was terrible on offense, shooting 5-for-24 from the field as the Magic rang up a 12-point advantage at the break. In the second half, that same group made 15 shots in 22 attempts as the Lakers erased the deficit with a 30-point third quarter. Trevor Ariza was a difference-maker, coming out of the locker room active on defense and accurate with his shooting. He scored 13 of his 16 points in the third. The Lakers also got positive minutes from Andrew Bynum, who played through foul trouble to do a good job on Dwight Howard, and Luke Walton, who made both of his shot attempts off the bench.
On a night when Bryant was inefficient (32 points on 31 shots and 34 shooting possessions) and Gasol (16 points on 7-for-14 shooting, but five of them in the final 30 seconds on the strength of two leakout dunks) was quiet, the Lakers needed those contributions. Jackson showed such trust in his other players as to actually call a play for Fisher in the final five minutes of regulation (a pick-and-roll that ended in a Dwight Howard steal), and Bryant made the right play with the game tied and 30 seconds left in OT, finding Fisher for the open look.
On the other side, the storyline for Orlando is one of missed opportunity. Not only did the Magic blow a late lead, but Orlando was also unable to fully capitalize on an excellent defensive first half because careless turnovers cut into the advantage. It was strange to see a team whose strength has been execution look so befuddled down the stretch. After Hedo Turkoglu's jumper made it 87-82 Magic with 1:34 to play in the fourth, Orlando scored just four points the rest of the way in 11 possessions.
The onus goes on both Van Gundy and his charges. It was Van Gundy who made the decision not to foul, but it was Nelson who failed to execute defensively against Fisher. Van Gundy was unable to come up with an inbounds play that initially freed any of his players, but Turkoglu decided to inbound anyway with 4.6 seconds left, and MickaŽl Pietrus eschewed a Howard mismatch and an open Rashard Lewis to force an improbable jumper at the buzzer. Along with missed free throws (most notably Howard's pair with 11 seconds left in the fourth) and bricks in the paint in overtime, those missed opportunities will haunt Orlando for some time to come barring a miraculous comeback in this series.
For Howard, it was the ultimate Jekyll-and-Hyde game. At the defensive end, he was a force, blocking a Finals-record nine shots and collecting 21 rebounds, 15 of the defensive variety. On offense, his ability to draw fouls wreaked havoc, putting Bynum, Gasol and Lamar Odom all on the bench with two fouls late in the first quarter, subjecting unsuspecting viewers to a DJ Mbenga/Josh Powell frontcourt in the NBA Finals. Alas, Howard struggled much of the night to convert in the paint, and his 6-for-14 free throw shooting hurt his team. He also committed seven of the Magic's 19 turnovers, a step back in his development this postseason in dealing with defensive pressure in the post.
Van Gundy's big decision down the stretch was keeping Nelson at point guard instead of going back to starter Rafer Alston. Nelson's ability to penetrate and find teammates paid off at times for Orlando, and the Magic operated much better over the course of the game with him at the helm (+1) than with Alston (-9). I do think Van Gundy might have been guilty here of staying with Nelson too long so soon after his return to the lineup. He played the game's final 18:28 without a break, and while the myriad end-game timeouts offer breathers, that's still a lot to ask of the guy. Van Gundy also could have substituted for Nelson on the last Lakers possession, getting a better defender on the floor.
Where Van Gundy deserves a lot of credit is going to J.J. Redick in the first half with Pietrus in foul trouble and Courtney Lee struggling. Redick knocked down a three and handed out three assists in addition to doing yeoman's work keeping up with Bryant at the other end of the floor.
Phil Jackson had to balance foul trouble for his non-Gasol bigs, giving Bynum three minutes in the fourth quarter before coming back to finish the game with Odom. From there, he was on autopilot in terms of substitutions, but he mixed things up with his play calls. The staple was a Bryant isolation, a change from the rest of this series when the Lakers have primarily gone to Bryant/Gasol pick-and-rolls. Bryant was able to drive more effectively isolating against Pietrus at the top of the key, but the Magic, and particularly Howard, effectively gave help. Jackson also called Gasol's number in straight post-ups a couple of times.
Orlando generally stuck with its base play, the Turkoglu/Howard pick-and-roll, but had a lot of success initiating the offense early before the Lakers were set and simply playing basketball, moving the ball and beating the Lakers off the dribble. That worked brilliantly in the fourth quarter, when the Magic scored nine times in a 12-possession span culminating in Turkoglu's jumper with 1:34 left (and one of the three "stops" came when Turkoglu missed a pair of free throws after getting to the line).
Even in overtime, when Orlando scored just four points, the looks were there for the most part. The Magic's first four misses of the extra session came, in order, from six feet (an off-balance Howard hook attempt), layup (Howard in traffic), from six feet (a heartbreaking Lewis runner) and from eight feet (a wild Turkoglu runner that did produce a loose-ball foul that sent Howard to the line). Where things broke down, again, was on set out-of-bounds plays. On consecutive possessions, Turkoglu forced off-balance jumpers that were doomed from the start. The clock was a factor on the second attempt, but on the first there were still 26 seconds left in a three-point game and little urgency to attempt a triple.
If anyone has shown the ability to rebound from these kinds of losses and learn from them it has been the Magic, time and again in this playoff run. Orlando must do that in Sunday's Game Five, since there's now no margin for error.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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