Posted by Kevin Arnovitz
The Orlando Magic don't have an unstoppable one-on-one player who can manufacture points out of thin air. When they want something, they have to execute. And for the better part of eight months, they've demonstrated a singular ability to do that. Orlando has mastered the art of finding the open shot, and it was the league's most efficient defensive team in the regular season -- all of it predicated on execution.
That's why the final 10.8 seconds of regulation in Game 4 were so tragic for Orlando. On two consecutive possessions -- one defensive, the next offensive -- the Magic had a chance to ice the game, and all that it required was basic execution, the sort of fundamental basketball Orlando has made a living at this season.
Leading 87-84 with only 10.8 seconds remaining, the Magic needed to deny the Lakers a 3-pointer.
The Lakers opted to inbound the ball in front of their own bench. Ariza was the inbounder and he had two targets in front of him -- Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher. Stan Van Gundy had assigned Hedo Turkoglu, Mickael Pietrus and Jameer Nelson to defend the backcourt.
Ariza was able to get the inbounds pass into Bryant along the sideline, but Turkoglu and Pietrus immediately swarmed the ball. Against pressure, Bryant quickly hit Ariza with a perfect pass up the left sideline. Nelson picked up Ariza, who shuttled the ball across the court to Fisher along the right sideline. Nelson made a beeline over to Fisher but, for whatever reason, dropped back inside the 3-point arc, conceding Fisher a clean look from 25 feet.
The familiar lefty slingshot is good, and the game is tied.
After the game, Stan Van Gundy was asked whether the plan was to foul the Lakers and put them on the line:
No, we thought 11 seconds was too early, especially the way we were shooting free throws tonight. So we thought it was too early. But you know, in retrospect, we gave him so much space to shoot the ball. We played like we were trying to prevent the layup. I thought we did a good job, we denied Bryant the ball, and then we just didn't play Derek Fisher, just didn't guard him. But no, it was my decision with 11 seconds not to foul. Yes, I regret it now, but only in retrospect. I mean, normally to me 11 is too early. You foul, they make two free throws, you cut it to one. You're still at six or seven seconds ... I thought it was too early at 11, though when they took it full court, I'll have to go back and look at that. That one will haunt me forever, but we could have played that play a lot better.
However long the debate about whether to foul or not to foul when leading by three rages on, both sides of the issue can agree on one thing: When the ball comes up the floor, defend the line. Stan Van Gundy will have to live with his decision not to commit a backcourt foul, but Jameer Nelson's inability to deny Fisher the space for the shot was equally fatal. The Magic, just ten seconds away from knotting the series at 2-2, were likely staring at another overtime period ... but they still had a chance to put the game away in regulation.
The Magic isn't lacking for candidates to hit game-winning daggers, and on their first attempt to get the ball in with 4.6 seconds remaining, Hedo Turkoglu -- the inbounder -- was clearly looking for Rashard Lewis to pop out to the left corner. The Lakers defended the scheme well, and forced the Magic to try again.
On the second attempt, all kinds of things were happening:
Rashard Lewis ran interference on the inbounds play, which freed Pietrus up to collect the ball from Turkoglu about 30 feet from the hoop. Lamar Odom, who got caught on the action, was left to cover Pietrus, while Kobe Bryant drew Rashard Lewis on the switch.
After his solid down screen to free up Pietrus, Lewis swung around Dwight Howard in the middle of the lane to fade to his favorite spot along the 3-point line on the left side. He dragged Pau Gasol -- Howard's man -- with him.
...which meant that Dwight Howard now had position deep, deep, deep in the post against Kobe Bryant.
When Pietrus got the inbounds pass, Ariza and Odom immediately trapped him, which meant Turkoglu was wide open at the top of the arc. Turkoglu called for the ball, but Pietrus was undeterred. Even though Turkoglu had an open look and Howard was positioned eight feet from the rim against a much smaller defender, Pietrus continued his left-handed drive across the arc. As if those two missed opportunities for open shots weren't enough, Pau Gasol generously gave Pietrus a third option when the Lakers' big man sloughed off Lewis in the left corner to provide another line of defense between Pietrus and the basket. Pietrus wouldn't be denied. He heaved an off-balanced runner off his left leg that didn't have a prayer.
The blown opportunity on the offensive end was even more cruelly ironic for the Magic. Just as they have all season long, the Magic managed to get themselves wide open looks all over the floor -- Turkoglu as the forgotten inbounder, Howard down low on the mismatch, the sharpshooting Lewis at his favorite spot. The precision employed to get these shots has been the Magic's greatest asset. But in the closing seconds of regulation Thursday night, they abandoned what had worked for them so well for more than 100 games.