Los Angeles Lakers 99, Orlando 91 (Los Angeles leads series, 3-1)
Wow, that was some defense.
It didn't seem to come up much during the game, for the usual reasons (defense isn't much of a talking point, unless teams aren't playing it), but this was a phenomenal defensive game from both sides, following a Game 3 that saw both teams take off on the offensive end.
The sheer activity levels in this game were awesome, and on a pretty incredible level when you figure the amount of games played and minutes slogged through this year before reaching a Thursday night in the second week of June.
Then again, this is also pretty typical of two great teams who more or less have each other's wants and needs sussed out. The game preparation meets the athleticism then feeds off the drive and leads to what we saw. Great, friggin', defense.
It shouldn't be surprising, considering how good these teams were defensively in 2008-09, but on the heels of that Game 3? An impressive about-face, no less entertaining, just as competitive.
As is always the case, there were self-made mistakes and mitigating factors that added to the defense-fest, with the losing team providing more of the shots to the foot.
The Magic missed 15 of 37 free throws for a miserable 59.5 percent clip, absolute suicide in a game that was tied after 48 minutes. The team continued its turnover-happy ways, coughing it up 17 times in a very slow (96 possessions in 53 minutes) contest. Dwight Howard(notes) had as many turnovers (seven) as the entire Laker team.
But credit the Lakers' defense, which harassed the Magic screen and roll game to no end. Credit Kobe Bryant's(notes) help defense. Truly applaud the way Pau Gasol(notes) moved his feet, thought off the ball, and gave up his body in defense of Dwight Howard (5-12 shooting two days after going 5-6 from the floor).
Gasol was brilliant, defensively. Lamar Odom's(notes) help defense was superb again, this time without leaving Rashard Lewis(notes) so much, and Derek Fisher(notes) was allowed to play a physical brand of defense on the perimeter (surprising in a game where Bennett Salvatore was the lead official), so he took advantage.
The Magic were just as sound. They can see the obvious coming just as clearly as anyone, so Orlando made a point to chase Pau Gasol off the block early and often, battering him off the ball and bumping him with help as he cut to the ball. And because the Lakers offense is a read-and-react offense, Gasol didn't see the rock as much as we assumed as the ball swung around, desperate to find someone who was open.
Before Derek Fisher's two late three-pointers, the Lakers were shooting 6-21 (28.5 percent) from behind the arc, as the Magic made a point to chase them off the open long ball. Kobe Bryant got his 32, but it was a huge struggle (31 shots), and every other Laker only seemed to contribute in spurts.
But when they did contribute? The difference in the game.
Save for the third quarter, Trevor Ariza(notes) shot 1-8 as the Magic continued to run him off the three-point line, force him to drive, and work an in-between game (shooting on the run, leaners and such) that he just isn't good at during this stage of his career. Save for the third quarter. Ariza hit a tough leaner as the Magic overplayed everyone but him, which got his rhythm right as he went on to score 11 more points in the quarter, including hitting both of his three pointers.
Bryant shot poorly, save for the first quarter, acting as the team's offensive savior for the second game in a row during that term as the Magic just crushed any other Laker's hope of securing an easy shot. And Fisher had missed all five of his three-point attempts before nailing a game-tying trey with just a few seconds left in regulation, and a straightaway three-pointer in overtime to just about put the Magic away.
The first shot will be the subject of some controversy, as it should be. The Lakers had the ball with just over 11 seconds left in the game, down three, and the buzz in the arena was fixated solely on whether or not the Magic would foul to send the Lakers to the line, with the potential for only two points.
We'd find out later that the Magic, fearful of their own free throw shooting woes (I'm sorry, but that's a cop out. Dwight Howard's not going to catch the ball, trust your guys to shoot their averages even if they just missed three of four in the quarter), decided not to foul. That much has been gone over quite a bit in the hours since Game 4 ended.
What hasn't been discussed much is the way the Lakers surprised the Magic by taking the ball out in the backcourt, as opposed to the frontcourt, as most coaches do.
Magic coach Stan Van Gundy was left to yell at his team like a little league coach, directing the center fielder to move farther out when the kid with the pituitary problem that repeated 2nd grade comes up to bat. The Magic did a superb job of denying Bryant the ball, face guarding him with two players on the in-bound pass, but the surprise of the backcourt in-bound rendered any speculation about fouling pointless.
Even if the Magic wanted to foul, they would have had a tough time doing it, as the Lakers put in the perfect counter. Almost perfect, I should say, because the Magic still had a chance to make things right.
Almost perfect because, for whatever reason, Jameer Nelson(notes) was treating Derek Fisher as if he were Derrick Rose(notes) as Fisher approached the three-point line. I'm not excusing Stan Van Gundy. He should have known that Phil Jackson, as he's done for 20 years, likes to take the ball out in the backcourt. And he should have called for the foul. But Nelson's decision was the real game-changer.
Nelson was essentially playing a slow, spot-up three-point shooter for a drive in a three-point game. Even if the Magic wanted to foul, there's no way Nelson gets out on Fisher and wraps him up with the defense he was playing. This one, unfortunately, is on Jameer.
"This one" meaning "the final play of regulation," mind you. It's not Nelson's fault that Howard missed six of 14 free throws, or that Hedo Turkoglu(notes) missed four free throws in the fourth quarter. It's not his fault Rafer Alston(notes) struggled in the third quarter (1-5 shooting, bad decisions) as the Lakers made a halftime decision to force everyone but Rafer away from the ball, and good shots.
And it's certainly not his fault Rashard Lewis wanted no part of contact on drives, being a go-to guy, or collecting tough rebounds (attempting to rebound with his arms, with his body spiraling away from the ball, while Derek Fisher throws his whole body into the loose ball). Six points on 10 shots for Lewis, who may as well have been Pat Garrity(notes) out there. Actually, Garrity would have hit a few more of those open shots.
Howard had nine blocks, an NBA Finals record, and he defended superbly without rejecting anything. Still, when you toss in the free throw mark and those seven turnovers, you can't really regard his outing as an All-Star performance. Time after time he was afforded solid attempts in the paint, but ruined his chances by bringing the ball down below his waist, ready to bring it back up for a monster slam a la Shaquille O'Neal(notes).
Dwight? You may have shown more interest in team defense during this two-game homestand than Shaq has shown in his entire career. You're not immature like Shaq. You're not insecure like Shaq. You're not out of shape, like Shaq. But you're not Shaq. Just because he had that bad habit of bringing the ball down that low, it doesn't mean you should emulate it.
O'Neal's frame was much, much wider than yours, which made it tougher for teams to wrap him up from behind. You, actually in shape, have that problem to think about. Keep the ball high, please. You would have had a 30-point game had you just kept the ball above your waist, or higher, even with the free throw woes.
Again, credit that Laker defense for knowing what to do, and where to go, at all times. And Gasol for making sure that the shots that Howard did get off were usually off-balance, and off the mark.
Los Angeles was ably prepared, and had the talent and energy and drive to execute. The Magic weren't that far behind, they were certainly on point defensively save for that final regulation possessions, but the team's own offensive mistakes coupled with that Laker D (just 95 points per 100 possessions for Orlando, awful) made everything a struggle.
The question now is whether or not the Magic struggle with their confidence, heading into the rest of a series that has likely been decided, or if the Lakers struggle to overcome common sense. Common sense that tells them that the series is already theirs, whether they play just as desperately in Game 5, or not.
We'll see on Sunday.