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Posted: Monday June 8, 2009 2:47AM; Updated: Monday June 8, 2009 3:29PM
Ian Thomsen Ian Thomsen >
INSIDE THE NBA

Lee's Magic moment falls short as experienced Lakers take 2-0 lead

Story Highlights

The Lakers beat the Magic 101-96 in overtime to take a 2-0 lead in the NBA Finals

Courtney Lee missed a late layup that embodied the surrealness of Orlando's run

While the Magic hoped to reach the Finals, the tested Lakers made this their focus

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Courtney Lee (11) missed an acrobatic layup as time expired in regulation as the Magic fell behind 2-0.
John W. McDonough/SI
2009 NBA Finals
 
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LOS ANGELES -- "Excuse me, excuse me,'' said Courtney Lee as he sidled politely through the crowd of reporters waiting at his locker. He was not accustomed to this kind of greeting. He was like a Washington politician waking up in disgrace to find a swarm of news people camped out on the front lawn.

"It was a good play, it was a good pass,'' said Lee, the rookie guard of the Orlando Magic. "Coach did a good job of drawing up the right play.''

Six-tenths of one second had remained in regulation of Game 2 when Hedo Turkoglu lobbed an inbounds pass to Lee breaking to the basket.

"I caught it, got a good look at the backboard,'' Lee said. "I tried to get it up there as quick as possible.''

Lee had curled hard around the keytop and left his defender, Kobe Bryant, trailing on a screen by Rashard Lewis. Like a wideout on the post he leapt to catch the ball -- screams could be heard from Laker fans -- and instantly volleyed it to the backboard.

"And the ball rolled off the rim,'' he said, trying to smile. Trying to make the best of it.

Now the Magic trail the 2-0 in the NBA Finals, headed back home for as many as three games in Orlando. Instead they might have been returning with the home court advantage. But there stood Lee at the end of regulation Sunday, hands clasped upon his head, agonized that he had missed a layup, a difficult, acrobatic layup under a kind of pressure he had never experienced, but a layup nonetheless. Into overtime went their chances and there the Lakers snuffed them out with a 101-96 win. (RECAP | BOX)

"It was kind of surreal for a second, because I couldn't believe how open he was,'' said Magic guard J.J. Redick. "There was almost a moment of celebration, and it was just a tough miss.''

The entire postseason has been surreal for the Magic, and the strangeness of it may just be catching up with them. They have been figuring it out as they've gone along ever since Jameer Nelson's "season-ending'' shoulder injury in February and the resulting trade for Rafer Alston. They overcame a 2-1 opening-round deficit to the 76ers followed by a 3-2 deficit to the Celtics, and they've played a variety of lineups to overcome predicaments no one was predicting they would face because who thought they would meet -- and then beat -- Cleveland in the conference finals?

Now they entered Game 2 of the Finals coming off a 25-point walloping by the Lakers, who have spent the past 12 months preparing for a series that has in many ways taken Orlando by surprise.

Pau Gasol (24 points and 10 rebounds in Game 2) and other Lakers have spent the past year lifting weights and growing stronger while focusing entirely on finishing the job in these Finals. Lamar Odom (19 points on nine shots to go with eight rebounds and three blocks) has refused to allow a back injury to prevent him from redeeming himself after last year's loss in the Finals. Derek Fisher (41 minutes) has had his playing time rationed all season in order to pace himself for a larger role in these Finals.

The Magic may have been dreaming about the Finals, but they haven't been -- couldn't be -- focused on it. The miserable experiences of Lee are the kinds of things the Lakers have undergone and learned from.

In the final 30 seconds of regulation -- the game tied at 88-88 following an extraordinarily calm layup from Gasol after he collected a deflected entry pass from Fisher -- the Magic tried to run a go-ahead play on the left side that wound up in the hands of Lee. He wanted to rotate the ball but he could find no one open. Dwight Howard came out to set a screen and Lee drove hard around him and into the lane, but his runner caromed hard off the back iron.

That was the first unfortunate experience. At the other end a midrange pullup by the 6-foot-6 Bryant was stripped cleanly from behind by the 6-10 Turkoglu, and an officials review of the play put 0.6 seconds back on the clock. On the court the Magic ran some motion without making the inbounds pass, and then in the huddle coach Stan Van Gundy drew up an alternative play resulting in the lob to Lee.

"We warned Kobe that was probably what they were going to come back to, because the first time he was helping on a lob opportunity to Howard,'' said Lakers coach Phil Jackson. "We suspected that that would probably be the action that they would come back to. But they still found a way to get a shot off.''

"It was just a brilliant play,'' said Bryant while admitting that he had been planning to shade off Lee. "It was just a very, very smart play that he drew up. He knew my eye was more on the shooters coming up, and just a hell of a play by a hell of a coach.''

All of the chances the Magic had to steal the result were undone by the novelty of their circumstances. Long before they found themselves needing a spectacular game-winning play by a late-round draft pick from Western Kentucky, Van Gundy and his team were trying to devise impromptu ways to overcome the Lakers' advantages. The Lakers were swarming Howard inside, pushing him out of his favorite positions before the ball arrived, running an extra man at him when he puts the ball on the floor and often stripping him as he goes up for the shot or breaking up his passes out to the perimeter. There have been extended stretches in these games when they have rotated to the open man and defended the passing lanes as if they've had an extra man or two on the floor, and guess who inspired them to defend so passionately? It's one of many lessons learned from the loss in last year's Finals.

In hope of offsetting Howard's diminished production, the Magic experimented in Game 2 with a big lineup of the 6-11 Howard and the 6-11 Marcin Gortat together. They played Redick for 27 minutes in hope of spacing the floor, and in a way it succeeded even though Redick was only 2 of 9 overall; but in another way it failed in the final three minutes of OT as Redick missed an open three and next time down committed a turnover while trying to bounce a pass inside to Howard. "We came up empty on two plays where I think we had created what could have been very good shots,'' said Van Gundy. "And that was difficult.''

They went most of the fourth quarter without a true point guard on the floor, leaving the ballhandling to Turkoglu. "All we did was try a lot of stuff today,'' said Van Gundy. "If you don't walk out with a win, you didn't do the right stuff.''

While Orlando's three best players -- Lewis (who kept them alive with 34 points on 21 shots), Turkoglu (22) and Howard -- combined for 73 points and shot 52.1 percent, the rest of the Magic were going 8 for 31 overall as well as 1 for 12 from the three-point line. Howard had seven turnovers alone as the Magic yielded 28 points to the Lakers on 20 turnovers. The Magic shot 41.8 percent as a team, and they still have a lot of problems to work out by Game 3 Tuesday.

"When I look at these numbers,'' says Van Gundy, "it's amazing to me that this was an overtime game.''

At this late stage you don't see teams making it up as they go along. Experience means everything, and someday Lee will look back and realize that.

 
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