Posted by Kevin Arnovitz
The Orlando Magic have endured their share of shaky runs this postseason. They coughed up an 18-point lead with less than a minute remaining in the third quarter to lose their playoff opener. They were painfully close to taking a 3-2 series lead home to Orlando when they led by 10 points with fewer than five minutes remaining in Game 4 of their conference semifinal against Boston, but faltered down the stretch. For sheer drama, those late-game meltdowns were spectacular, but the run that proved to be fatal was the 16-0 run they surrendered to the Lakers in the second quarter of Game 5 Sunday night.
Orlando looked sharp over the first quarter and a half of the game. We witnessed two of the best offensive minutes of Dwight Howard's career to start the second quarter. He showed us a baby dream shake, then a graceful spinning dribble move for an easy layup. The Magic executed on one of their patented reversals to get Mickael Pietrus a nice look from 15 feet, and scored their 40th point at the 7:11 mark of the second quarter.
The Magic's fluid offensive attack was masking some of their defensive shortcomings -- lazy pick-and-roll defense [Rashard Lewis, 1st, quarter, 10:01; Hedo Turkoglu, 1st quarter, 4:21], problems on the weak side glass, [1st quarter, 6:45], passive perimeter D [Courtney Lee, 1st quarter, 4:48]. Most notably, though, Orlando doubled Kobe Bryant very liberally in the
first half. The Magic paid for it when Bryant kicked a quick pass over to a Trevor Ariza drive at the 3-minute mark of the first quarter. Ariza had an easy path to the basket and was fouled on his short attempt by Howard.
It was this type of overcompensation by Orlando that ignited the Lakers, and gave them nine of their first 11 points of their spurt:
[2nd quarter, 5:54 mark] The Lakers ran out in transition, but after the Magic raced back, Derek Fisher reset. Though the Magic did a generally good job of recovering in transition, neither of their wings were able to spell Rafer Alston. Bryant smelled blood, and immediately posted up Alston on the right block. That's where Fisher's pass went.
That Alston needed help was obvious. The question was, where should it come from? Pietrus had some distance to cover from the right corner, but it was a manageable commute. Instead, Turkoglu raced over from Fisher, leaving Game 4's hero wide open for a 3-pointer (good). Rashard Lewis could've rotated up, but the price would've been Lamar Odom at 18 feet.
[2nd quarter, 5:09 mark] The Lakers didn't just hurt Orlando when the Magic doubled Bryant in the halfcourt -- they made the Magic pay in transition, too. After Bryant picked off an entry pass intended for Howard, he raced down the right sideline. Almost every single magician made a beeline to Kobe on the break. Lewis was backpedaling in front of Bryant, with Pietrus in close pursuit, and Howard not far behind. When Turkoglu joined the mob, that left the entire near side of the floor for Alston. Bryant whipped a pass to Ariza, who had all day to set up and launch a 3-pointer (good).
[2nd quarter, 4:11] "Smart player" is one of those characterizations that gets thrown around a lot. Put another way, a smart player is one who applies useful information about the past to the present. Bryant was clearly attuned to the fact that Turkoglu was leaving Ariza the nanosecond Bryant went directly at his defender. So what did Kobe do? Attack off the dribble with his left, to the spot where Turkoglu was set up on his hedge. Turkoglu reacted predictably -- by shifting his weight and attention to Kobe. The only thing required of Bryant was an easy kickout to a wide open Ariza on the left wing for another successful 3.
Nine out of the first 11 points came on Bryant assists out of the double-team. The other two points? A pull-up jumper by Bryant against a double-team of Pietrus and Howard [2nd quarter, 4:43].
Those are tactical matters, but they were almost certainly informed by the emotional flashpoint of the game -- a confrontation between Turkoglu and Ariza following Fisher's 3-pointer. Orlando called timeout, then Turkoglu and Ariza earned double technicals when they jawed at each other nose to nose. Out of the timeout, Ariza and the Lakers played some of their most relentless defense of the postseason. That defense was every bit as vital to the 16-0 run as Bryant's kickouts on the other end:
[2nd quarter, 5:37] The Lakers take a lot of flak for their pick-and-roll defense, which can be indecisive at times, but they began their defensive stand in the second quarter with a strong possession. Turkoglu -- with Ariza in hot pursuit -- swung around the arc to pick up a handoff from Alston. Howard stepped out to give Turkoglu a ball screen, but Ariza bowled right through Howard to stay close to Turkoglu. Just in case, Gasol showed assertively, slowing Turkoglu's momentum. Once Ariza recovered, Gasol dashed to Howard.
A lightning quick show and recovery by Ariza and Gasol. Had you frozen the screen, you would've seen Fisher, Odom, and Bryant zoning the floor exquisitely. Pietrus ultimately settled for an off-balance jumper in traffic.
After a loose ball foul on Gasol, the Lakers have to do it again, and the Magic initiated a similar play: Handoff for Turkoglu with an immediate perimeter screen from Howard. Again, Ariza and Gasol played it to perfection. The prettiest part of the sequence was the teamwork by Odom, who had to account for Lewis at the 3-point line, and Gasol, who needed to follow Howard to the block, but not before Ariza recovered. Their coordination was precise. Odom delayed Howard's path, then got out of there to close on Lewis in the nick of time.
Whether it was coincidence or the dramatic renderings of the basketball gods, Turkoglu and Ariza always seemed to be at the center of things during the 3:16 stretch:
[2nd quarter, 4:02] Seconds after Ariza hit the second of this 3-pointers, the ball worked its way over to Turkoglu. The Lakers early strong-side pressure left Ariza on Lewis -- with Odom on Turkoglu -- on the far side. For a lot of teams, a 3-4 cross-match might be problematic, but not the Lakers, with their agility and length. Turkoglu began his dribble against Odom along the baseline, but Odom -- one of the best big perimeter defenders in the league -- gave up nothing. Turkoglu was trying to find some space ... any space, thought he had Howard in the post, but the entry pass was knocked away and grabbed by Ariza. Orlando's transition defense never recovered, and the Lakers ended up with Fisher taking Howard off the dribble in isolation. Layup.
[2nd quarter, 3:29] Coming out of the timeout, the end of the series felt palpable for the first time. The Lakers were rabid, and when Lewis got the ball out on the perimeter, he was swarmed by a double-team 20 feet away from the basket. Lewis frantically tried to dish the ball off to Turkoglu, but Ariza shot the gap, knocked the ball away, and slashed his way downcourt one-on-one against Turkoglu. The only recourse for Hedo was to f
oul, and Ariza made his way to the line, where he drained one of two.
[2nd quarter, 3:12] Ever since the confrontation with Turkoglu, Ariza had been an animal on the defensive end, clawing at Turkoglu off the ball. After Ariza's made free throw on the other end, the Lakers led by 10. Alston brought the ball down as Howard, Turkoglu, and Lewis converged awkwardly at the top of the key. Even during their earlier collapses, the Magic never appeared this disoriented, unable to set up a basic halfcourt set. Turkoglu was clearly supposed to free himself up courtesy of a Lewis down screen, but Ariza didn't let Turkoglu get even an inch of daylight. In his effort to shake free of Ariza, Turkoglu tripped over Lewis. Both Magic forwards sprawled to the hardwood. Ariza picked up the loose ball and, from the ground, heaved an outlet pass to Odom that resulted in a 3-on-1 Lakers break.
Ariza has always displayed an aggressive style, but Sunday night, he was an aggressive player. It wasn't just his tactical game -- Ariza's entire persona was transformed into a killer. Bryant was able to use his supremacy to create the shots during the spurt, but it was Ariza's passage from contributor to winner that was decisive in the Lakers' championship stand.