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THE FINALS
Chris Ballard
June 25, 2009
FOLLOWING THEIR STAR, THE LAKERS ARE CHAMPIONS AGAIN
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June 25, 2009

The Finals

FOLLOWING THEIR STAR, THE LAKERS ARE CHAMPIONS AGAIN

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What's more, the Lakers had lost in the unlikeliest of ways, the way they usually win: because of Kobe. The best late-game player in the league, on this night he struggled at the end, missing a crucial free throw with 59 seconds left (he was an uncharacteristic 5 of 10 on the night), committing a turnover with 32 seconds left and misfiring on a late three-pointer. Afterward he sat at the podium, pursing his lips. "It was disappointing," he said. "I'm used to coming through in those situations."

While Bryant struggled, the Magic continued to make big plays, none bigger than Pietrus's follow dunk on a missed shot with just over two minutes remaining. The reserve guard was one of many Magic players to finally have a big game. Invisible all series, Alston came out hot in the first quarter, hitting a succession of deep jump shots, and soon he had that old Rucker Park bounce in his step. He juked, he drove, he made looping one-handed passes. Alston finished with 20 points on 8-of-12 shooting, prompting Van Gundy to declare that he'd "played very, very well," which was quite a departure from criticism the coach had leveled after previous games. It was a promising sign for the Magic, which had struggled with guard play in the first two games and perhaps suffered from the return of Nelson.

Howard also had his first big offensive game, or at least a moderately big one. He scored 21 points and grabbed 14 rebounds. What's more, he hit 11 of 16 free throws (69%). Who would have thought that Bryant would shoot his free throws like Howard and Howard his like Bryant?

As time ran out, a roar arose from the boisterous crowd at Amway Arena. Confetti fell and music played. The only problem: There was still .2 of a second left on the clock. So out came the brooms as arena employees tried to clear the court, to no avail. Fortunately, Lewis hit two free throws to put the game out of reach and secure the victory, ensuring that the Lakers would not take a 3-0 lead. Still, one couldn't really blame the Magic. The way the series was looking, it might be Orlando's only celebration, premature or not.

GAME 4
June 11, Amway Arena, Orlando
LAKERS 99, MAGIC 91 (OT)

UNDER A MINUTE TO GO AND IT WAS OVER. THE Orlando fans knew it, roaring, waving towels and stomping their feet. After all, Kobe Bryant had just missed a three-pointer, and Orlando had the ball up 87-82 as the clock ticked down—50 seconds, now 45. This had been the Magic's game from the start. Orlando raced to a 12-point halftime lead. Howard swatted anything that came near (finishing with nine blocks). And Kobe was again un-Kobe-like, forcing shots and eventually finishing 11 for 31 from the field. All that was left to do was hit a couple of free throws and go party down on Church Street.

The only problem was the matter of those free throws. After Lewis missed a jumper and Gasol scored to put the Lakers down three, Bryant fouled Howard inside. As the crowd chanted "M-V-P!" Howard stepped to the line, bent his knees and lofted the first one toward the rim. It rattled around and out. Moments later the second one hit the back rim and caromed high in the air, to be secured by Ariza. Later, Howard would say, "I just missed them.... They just weren't falling tonight. There's no need to get down on myself."

And there might not have been any need had it not been for Derek Fisher. In an unusual move, after calling timeout with 11 seconds left, Jackson opted to take the ball out of bounds in the backcourt, rather than at half-court. Explained Fisher: "In the half-court, as soon as you throw it in, they're going to foul." On the other sideline Van Gundy opted not to foul—a decision he later conceded "will haunt me forever." A doubled Bryant passed to Ariza, who redirected the ball to Fisher. Criticized as being too old, too slow and too ineffective during these playoffs, Fisher seemed an unlikely option. He had missed all five of his three point attempts on the night. With Nelson playing a good three feet off him, though, he dribbled down the right side, rose up from 28 feet or so and arced the ball through the net, leaving Orlando fans to forever wonder a number of things. Why did Nelson give him so much space? Why didn't the Magic foul? And why didn't Van Gundy sub in a longer, taller defender (like, say, Lee)?

Moments later Pietrus missed a jumper to send it to overtime when, again, Fisher hit a big three, this time from the top of the key when Bryant was doubled. It was a remarkable display of clutch shooting. "In the locker room I was kind of teasing him a little bit because he was 0 for 5 on three-pointers until he made those last two," Bryant said later. "But that's Derek. He just has supreme confidence."

With that, Orlando's spirit was broken and Los Angeles finished off the game, 99-91, and, it seemed likely, the series as well. The Lakers had three more chances to get that ring, needing but one win, and you could see it on their faces: They'd gotten over the hump. As he walked to his car, Bryant even smiled for the first time in a while, hugging friends and adversaries alike. There was a bounce to his step. For a man who'd just played an overtime game, who only days earlier had looked drained from a long season, he did not look tired at all. The end was within sight.

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