Orlando Magic forward Dennis Scott, known as 3-D to his teammates because of his three-point shooting skill, is a leading authority on the subject of the jump shot. There are precious few questions on the topic that catch him off guard, but he was faced with one after he had made seven of 15 treys to help the Magic shoot down the Indiana Pacers 119-114 in Game 2 of their Eastern Conference finals playoff series last week. Was it true, reporters wanted to know, that a shooting tip from Orlando center and renowned free throw danker Shaquille O'Neal had really helped Scott shake out of a brief shooting slump, as O'Neal had suggested?
Scott paused a moment and then chose to go along with O'Neal perhaps because Shaq is one of his best friends or maybe because he wisely decided that it's a good rule of thumb to agree with someone who is 7'1" and 305 pounds, especially when he is sitting at the next locker. "Oh, yeah, Shaq gives me tips all the time," Scott said. "He helps me with my jump shot, and I help him with his foul shooting."
Though you may be skeptical about whether O'Neal really has a future as a shot doctor, it's hard to blame him for wanting to get in on the shooting discussion since everyone else in the series was talking about jump shots, particularly those of the long-range variety. The first three games made it clear that the Magic and the Pacers were engaged in a shooters' series, but if there was any lingering doubt, it was erased in Monday's Game 4, the ending of which should have been played in the OK Corral. The two teams put on as memorable a duel of clutch outside shooting as the playoffs have ever produced, with three three-pointers and a buzzer-beating two-pointer, by Indiana center Rik Smits, in the final 13.3 seconds of Indiana's 94-93 win that tied the best-of-seven series at 2-2. Smits's 15-footer seemed almost ho-hum compared with the bombs that preceded it—by, in order, Orlando guard Brian Shaw, Indiana guard Reggie Miller and Orlando guard Penny Hardaway—but when you're 7'4", a 15-footer is a bomb.
The Game 4 ending was in keeping with the pattern of the series, in which both teams lived and died by the jumper. When the Magic's outside marksmen—notably Scott, Hardaway and guard Nick Anderson—were on target in the first two games, at the Orlando Arena, they provided a perfect complement to O'Neal's inside domination, and the Magic looked nearly unbeatable in taking a 2-0 lead. "If they continue to shoot like that," said Indiana coach Larry Brown before returning to Indianapolis's Market Square Arena for Games 3 and 4, "they'll win the championship. It's that simple." But when Orlando cooled off from the perimeter late in Saturday's Game 3, the Pacers were able to climb back into the series with a 105-100 win.
Of course, Indiana has its own outside threat in Miller, the master of the dagger-in-the-heart three-pointer. Miller didn't have any dramatic threes in the first three games, but his mere presence beyond the three-point line was a constant concern to the Magic—and to their fans. When Miller went up for a meaningless three-point attempt at the buzzer in the Magic's 119-114 Game 2 win, there was an "Oh, no" gasp from the crowd, as if the fans thought for a moment that he could somehow make a five-pointer. "The first thing you do when Indiana gets the bail is find Reggie," Anderson said after Game 3. "It seems like one team or the other is making big threes at the end of every game, and we all know that's Reggie's thing."
But early in the series Scott did his thing more effectively than Miller did. Scott is diligent in the care and feeding of his shot. He has been known to stay up late with it when it is sick, as he did past midnight of the night before Game 1, when he fired away on a little court near his house in the glow of a single streetlight. And he often gets up early with it, taking the court hours before a game to work on his mechanics. "I just work up a little sweat," he says. "As soon as it starts to feel good, I stop. I don't want to use up all my jumpers too early."
Scott works so hard to keep his jumper sharp because he realizes that it is what he calls his "bread and butter," the skill that brought him back into Magic coach Brian Hill's good graces after early-season injuries and being overweight had sharply diminished his playing time. 3-D's game is fairly one-dimensional—defense and rebounding have never been his strong suits—which is why he was largely a forgotten man until he came off the bench to score 23 points, while canning seven of 11 three-point shots, against the Phoenix Suns in January. Even now his future in Orlando is uncertain. Scott will probably become an unrestricted free agent after the playoffs since it is highly unlikely that the Magic will make the $4 million qualifying offer (a condition written into Scott's contract) necessary to keep him from becoming one.
None of that is on Scott's mind when there is an open jumper to be taken. "Nothing interferes with my shooting," he says. "The one thing that I really can't stand is missing an open jump shot. If I get a good look at the basket, I feel I should hit the shot every time."
He was nearly that flawless in the first two games of the series. Scott helped the Magic erase an early 18-point deficit in Game 1 by hitting three consecutive treys, and he finished with 19 points (including five of 11 three-pointers) as the Magic won 105-101. In Game 2 he was part of a Magic attack that was frightening in its efficiency. O'Neal made quick work of Smits, who couldn't stay out of foul trouble long enough to put up much of a fight. But the Pacers might have survived O'Neal's 39-point, 10-rebound effort if they had been able to contain the Magic's perimeter people. Arrayed around O'Neal like spokes on a wheel, Scott, Anderson and Hardaway went 12 for 26 from three-point range and combined for 61 points. "Coach, maybe we should let Shaq get 50 and stop everybody else," Miller said to Brown before Game 3.
Fortunately for Indiana, it didn't come to that. Foul trouble did what Smits couldn't—it contained O'Neal. He finished with 18 points in just 30 minutes, and thanks to exceptional interior defense from Indiana forward Antonio Davis (Smits was again dealing with foul problems of his own), O'Neal wasn't much of a fourth-quarter factor, with just five points.