Ball Don't Lie - NBA

Orlando 108, Los Angeles Lakers 104
(Los Angeles leads series, 2-1)

This is how it goes in close games.

The Magic, to be quick with it, were pretty lucky to be around in Game 2 as the turnovers mounted and the missed shots piled up from the Orlando guard corps.

The Lakers, to be quick with it, were pretty lucky to be close in Game 3 as the Magic's shooting percentage shot through the roof as the missed free throws added up for Los Angeles.

And that's why we're not quick with it. Nobody was really lucky, in the truest sense of the word, during either turn. These are two fantastic teams that are just bouncing off each other right now. And while we might see some obvious reasons as to why one team pulls ahead, or why the loser could never close the gap and take a lead, you just have to appreciate basketball like this.

And you have to appreciate, once again, the resiliency of the Orlando Magic.

Orlando shot the hell out of the ball. The Lakers made a ton of mistakes on the defensive end of the court, but Orlando had just as big a role, if not much bigger, in tossing in 108 points in a slow game. The ball movement wasn't perfect, but it was done quickly, and the shots were falling even as the Magic (supposedly) bucked NBA tradition by going from the outside-in.

The ball was moving, and the spacing was there. Yes, the screen and roll attack bogged down a bit in the third and part of the fourth quarter as the team's legs left them and Hedo Turkoglu(notes) made some questionable decisions, but by and large the Magic built their offensive juggernaut with quick flashes to the ball that were met by a pass.

Credit Stan Van Gundy's play calling. Early in the first quarter, he set his shakier-types up for quick looks that they couldn't think too long about. Rashard Lewis'(notes) first two buckets were quick flashes to the post for a turnaround jumper. Rafer Alston's(notes) first attempts (and makes) were on guard-around screens that Derek Fisher(notes) went under. All four shots left no room for contemplation. All four shots went in.

Lewis went on to miss several, studied, perimeter looks as the night went on. And Rafer tossed in his usual batches of questionable (there's that word again) play. We called it one bum play for every great play during the live blog, but the answer was more often a good play leading to a great play that then led to a bad play which started the entire cycle all over again.

Alston ended up making eight of 12 shots, on his way to 20 points. That's coming out of nowhere, and that makes a difference. So does Dwight Howard(notes) making 11 of 16 free throws. Not the best mark, but enough in a situation like this. Howard has only dropped below the 60 percent mark from the line once in 10 games since May 17th, while we're at it.

And guess what? Dwight Howard took six shots. It's nice if he's scoring in the post (Tony Battie(notes) set him up with a pair of nice high-low passes from the top of the key) and putting up huge numbers, but it's not a prerequisite to winning. If the matchups aren't set in a way that allows him to score at ease offensively, than his work has to be done elsewhere.

And "elsewhere," in this case, was on the glass and defensively. The Lakers snuck in for a few offensive rebounds too many, but the Magic still enjoyed a two-rebound advantage overall. Defensively, he helped contain Kobe Bryant(notes) in the second half.

His attention on Bryant may have allowed Lamar Odom(notes) and Pau Gasol(notes) to toss in a few post-up looks in that second half, and Courtney Lee(notes) is to be credited (really, really credited) for his fantastic defense, but Howard was a presence that both Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant mentioned after the game without much prodding.

I know what you're thinking. 51 percent shooting for the Lakers, about 121 points per 100 possessions, 104 points overall in a very slow (86 possessions) game. Well, I'm telling you, the Magic's defense was just fine.

Why is that? Well, Kobe went off in that first quarter, nailing tough shot after tough shot that, at best, have a 30-35 percent shot of going in. Kobe hit 8 of his first 11 shots, instead of the three or four of 11 (an optimistic expectation, really) that he should have hit. There's a few points, there.

Mistakes? They made a few. Lost Pau Gasol a few times defensively, allowed Lamar Odom to work in the post. A few more points.

Then there's the fact that the Lakers are a fantastic offensive outfit. Leeway, my friends. Leeway.

So that's why I'm calling a 121 points per 100 possessions game a "good defensive game" for the Magic. 95 percent of the time, the Magic were making the right decisions, with the right effort and intensity. You couldn't say that for Game 1, even when the Lakers "only" put up about 115 points per 100 possessions.

Kobe's a tough one, here. As stated, he hit 8 of his first 11, but things dried up considerably after that, and Bryant only made three of his next 14 shots. Overall, that leaves him with a pretty good but not great game, especially when you toss in four turnovers (in a low possession contest) and 5-10 shooting from the line.

And while we'd prefer he not think that his falling away, hand-in-face, 20-footers are the answer, I'm having a hard time criticizing the man's play down the stretch, even as it all went wrong. We don't know if the Lakers made a point to go away from Pau Gasol (only two shots, two makes, in the fourth quarter) and Lamar Odom (who ran the show early in the quarter to great success, only to be shuffled aside) in the fourth quarter, but assuming that Bryant was asked to take over, the decisions he made were sound.

The shots didn't go in, he couldn't take care of the ball in the face of the NBA's best defense, and he missed free throws. Missing the free throws is all on him, but I prefer to credit Courtney Lee and Dwight Howard a bit more than I care to go after Kobe.

He did have two assists in the fourth quarter, one big turnover, and his 2-6 mark was tainted by having to hoist two three-pointers (three overall attemptss in the quarter; the first, with two minutes to go, was a horrible shot) as the Magic's late advantage grew into a two possession game.

I pull no punches with Kobe, good or bad, so understand that I'm not covering for anything. I took the optimist's approach with Bryant's early play, thinking that he was conserving his energy with the long shots early, assuming he'd take it to the rim successfully as the night moved along.

But I was wrong about the optimism, Kobe would much prefer a 35-point game spent hoisting jumpers than a 41-point game spent dashing to the rim these days (can you blame him?), and even with an extended second half rest, he didn't have the legs to pull either style off down the stretch.

And I think I underestimated the sheer physical strength it takes to get those tough fadeaways off. That's the shot he was allowed in the first half, he made it to keep his team from getting blown out (the Magic made three out of every four shots in the first half), and it has to drain you. Especially while playing your second game as a focal point in 48 hours. Especially as your career total in playoff minutes nears the 6800 mark.

Does that mean the Lakers were right to go away from Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom. No way. That was a tactical mistake that sometimes comes of a byproduct of an offense without any consistently called plays. But just as it was for the Magic in Game 2 ... there the Lakers were, right there, down the stretch.

This is why it's good that we're in June. I don't like the fact that I'm sweating through my sport coat just walking to the bus, and I miss the other 27 teams that aren't the Los Angeles Clippers, but it's a good time to be a fan. Because things have settled, and we can trust our Conference champions.

We don't have to worry about the Magic not involving Dwight Howard, or not making quick decisions on their passes, because we know they know.

We know the Lakers know they missed two many free throws. We know they know that they'll have to get back to Gasol and Odom. We know that they know that the team's defense was abysmal at times, and that they know that the Magic missed their fair share of open shots.

The lessons? They were over months ago. Well, OK, for these two teams? Weeks ago. But the point is that we don't have to worry about either side turning things around, or that they'll give us anything less than another killer in Game 4. Sure, there'll be something new to carp about, something that's gone horribly wrong; but by and large, we've got it pretty good right now.

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