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At the end, confetti fell and the Lakers pranced off, knowing they'd dominated the series opener. The Magic shot 29.9% as a team and Howard, who'd scored 40 in the clinching game of the conference finals, had been held to 12 points and one field goal. Van Gundy, asked what he liked about his team's play, paused. "What was there to like?"
THE BALL SEEMED TO FLOAT IN THE AIR FOREVER, spinning high above the floor of the Staples Center toward the left side of the rim as Magic and Lakers players craned their necks to watch its flight. Using a back screen at the top of the key, Lee—who'd spent much of the first two games guarding Kobe Bryant with little luck and who had moments earlier missed a potentially game-changing runner—sprinted toward the basket and leaped. His defender, Bryant, was out of the frame, having run face-first into a pick. With .6 of a second remaining in the fourth quarter and the game tied, Lee could win it right here and send Orlando home tied 1-1.
It was a difficult shot for sure, a bank alley-oop layup off a half-court inbounds pass, but it was uncontested and, undoubtedly, makeable. Thus when Lee's layup slipped off the front rim, it seemed that Orlando's chance to win the Finals had slipped with it. In overtime the Lakers took control to finish off a 101-96 win and take a 2-0 series lead. Afterward Jackson admitted to a "sense of relief," saying, "There's no doubt that they had every opportunity or chance to win the game."
As a group, the Magic guards combined to shoot 6 of 26 from the field, with the worst offender being Rafer Alston (1 for 8, including 0 for 4 on threes). Orlando also committed 20 turnovers—seven of them by Howard, who was again frustrated by the Lakers' swarming defense. Indeed, were it not for the pyrotechnics of forward Rashard Lewis, who had a near triple double with 34 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists while hitting six three-pointers, it might have been another Lakers blowout.
For the Lakers, Bryant finished with the most impressive stat line—29 points and eight assists—but he struggled at times on offense. It appeared Bryant was sometimes trying to do too much, never more so than on the final Lakers play of regulation. With the score tied, Bryant attacked against Magic forward Hedo Turkoglu from the left wing. Knowing Bryant was determined to shoot, two Magic players came over to help. Ariza was left alone on the right wing, and he put his arms in the air as if trying to flag down a plane. It was to no avail. Bryant dribbled into the mass of blue jerseys, rose up and had his shot blocked cleanly from behind by Turkoglu. "We didn't get a good shot," Jackson said afterward, in a bit of an understatement. "It disappointed us, but it didn't weigh us down going into overtime."
That's when Gasol came up big, scoring seven points and hitting all five of his free throws, to finish with 24 points and 10 rebounds. All on the Lakers agreed that it wasn't pretty, but as Bryant said, "we got out of here with a win."
IT'S HARD TO KNOW WHICH WAS more unlikely: a team shooting 75% for a half during an NBA Finals game (as the Magic did in the first half, setting an NBA record) or the same team being only five points up (as Orlando was, clinging to a 59-54 lead) at intermission. It was also hard to tell: Was this a good sign for Orlando (it was shooting the lights out, after all)? Or a bad omen (because if you can't pull away hitting three of every four shots, it doesn't speak well of your chances of ever doing so)?
In the end perhaps it was a bit of both, as the Magic held on for a 108-104 win that nonetheless had to give Los Angeles confidence. After all, playing on the road, the Lakers had withstood the best Orlando had and still had opportunities to win the game. "I thought we controlled the tempo of the game," said Jackson of the first half, adding of Orlando's shooting, "That tends to even out."