French connection pays off for Orlando in playoffs

ORLANDO, Fla. – Oprah has never called. Nor has Madame Tussaud or People Magazine. He doesn’t have an A-list wife. He doesn’t do the Emmys. Red carpets, in general, usually don’t extend to him. If he listens to rap, he’s at least spared the music world by not recording his own album.

Mickael Pietrus(notes) is not Tony Parker(notes), and that’s OK with him. They’re both French and they both play basketball and … that’s about it. Pietrus has found himself on the sport’s biggest stage, the same one that Parker dominated just two years ago. But if you think he’d reach out to his countryman for advice, to ask him to share his own NBA Finals experience, well, even Pietrus knows T Pizzle’s schedule is probably booked.

“Right now he’s chilling at Roland Garros,” Pietrus said. “He has a nice girl, too. He don’t have time for Pietrus right now.”

Pietrus laughed. He knows how it works. A year ago, Parker told French magazine L’Equipe there were only two NBA players of any true significance from the country: himself and Phoenix Suns forward Boris Diaw(notes). Pietrus – surprise, surprise – wasn’t too happy. Parker eventually apologized, and it’s a good thing he did.

These days, Pietrus is doing just fine representing Les Bleus on his own. No player has a tougher job in these Finals, and no player may have done more to push the Orlando Magic back into their series against the Los Angeles Lakers. He scored 18 points off the bench in the Magic’s 108-104 Game 3 victory, 10 in the tense final quarter, and he did so while hounding Kobe Bryant(notes) much of the night.

Air France, as Pietrus is called, also had enough lift left in his legs to throw down a late put-back dunk that gave the Magic the lead for good. He hasn’t worn his usual Kobe-endorsed shoes during the Finals, instead switching to a pair that has “AF 447” on the side, a tribute to the victims of the Air France flight that crashed into the Atlantic Ocean last week. Off the court and on, Pietrus has delivered.

“Obviously,” Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said, “the pressure doesn’t bother him at all.”

The Magic wouldn’t have advanced this far if Pietrus had already wilted. As the playoffs have progressed, he’s become an increasingly important contributor on both ends of the floor. The Magic have asked him to guard Andre Iguodala(notes), Paul Pierce(notes), LeBron James(notes) and now Bryant, his job growing more difficult by the round. He’s also averaging 10.6 points on 48.4 percent shooting in the postseason to give Orlando’s reserve unit some punch.

“He’s been in the league long enough,” Magic forward Hedo Turkoglu(notes) said, “but this is his first opportunity to show himself on a good team.”

Pietrus spent his first five seasons with the Golden State Warriors, and his playoff success began and ended with the team’s historic first-round upset of the Dallas Mavericks in 2007. The Magic signed him to a four-year, $21.2 million contract last summer, but couldn’t keep him on the floor. A torn thumb ligament sidelined him for nearly a month in December. He returned for a week, then fractured his right wrist and missed another month.

Unable to depend on Pietrus, the Magic moved him to the bench. “We thought it was disruptive to have him in and out of the lineup,” Van Gundy said.

The playoffs didn’t start much better. Pietrus took just one shot and failed to score in Orlando’s opening loss to the Philadelphia 76ers. On his way out of the locker room, he was heckled by one of the Magic’s own fans.

“Better go work on your jump shot!” the man yelled.

Pietrus laughed off the incident. He laughs off a lot of stuff, and his personality has helped him in the playoffs. He rarely gets too high or too low, an important trait if your nightly duties include chasing LeBron and Kobe. LeBron scored 49 points in the opener of the East finals. The next game, Pietrus was ready to take him on again. On and on they went. By the end of the series, LeBron looked tired from having to do so much of Cleveland’s heavy lifting.

Pietrus handled Kobe’s explosive start to Game 3 with the same measured confidence. Kobe stuck a 3-pointer in Pietrus’ face while getting him off his feet for a foul. He raised up for another 3-pointer over Pietrus in the second quarter. Both shots were contested. Pietrus shrugged them off. What else could he do?

Pietrus continued to try to body up Bryant, to push him into the Magic’s help defense. By the fourth quarter, Bryant’s legs looked lost. He tried to force his way through a trap by Pietrus and Dwight Howard(notes) late in the game only to lose the ball. Pietrus came up with the steal, made two free throws and the Magic finally had the separation they needed.

Pietrus knows the other side of life against Bryant. He fouled out in Game 2 after 23 minutes, scoring just two points. Not many men have survived a series with Bryant, let alone a back-to-back series with Bryant and James.

“I think LeBron is a great player, MVP,” Pietrus said. “But Kobe is really, really tough to guard. He’s really tough … tough … tough … tough … tough &helliptoughtoughtough.”

Pietrus must grind through games to give himself a chance. For all of his talent, he is a role player for these Magic. Howard, Turkoglu, Rashard Lewis(notes) and Jameer Nelson(notes) get the attention. Pietrus gets the job few players want.

Parker has gotten the glory – and the girl. He’s worked hard to make himself one of the top point guards in the NBA, not to mention a three-time champion. But he’s also the first to admit how much he’s benefitted from playing with Tim Duncan(notes). Along the way, he married a Hollywood star, picked up a Finals MVP trophy and became one of France’s biggest sporting heroes. Parker also befriended Thierry Henry, one of the most famous soccer players in the world, and Henry routinely attended some of Parker’s playoff games each spring.

Any bias NBA teams had against French players began to melt once Parker began splintering defenses. Two years after the San Antonio Spurs took Parker 28th in the draft, Pietrus went 11th to the Warriors. Since then, he’s had a hard time escaping Parker’s shadow. During Parker’s three trips to the Finals, it wasn’t unusual for nearly two dozen French reporters to fly over for the series. Barely a quarter of that have attended this season’s three games.

Henry attended one of the games in Los Angeles, but he was there as a guest of Warriors forward Ronny Turiaf(notes), another member of France’s national basketball team. If Turiaf and Henry offered Pietrus any support, it was modest. They had come more to watch the Lakers.

Pietrus’ own cheering section was waiting for him in Orlando. His older brother, Florent, who plays overseas and has spent some time in the NBA summer leagues, flew to Florida, along with Claude Makelele, one of the premier midfielders in soccer.

“He knows that I had a hard time with the Warriors,” Pietrus said of his brother, “but at the same time … he tells me the Magic time is my time.”

If nothing else, Pietrus can tell himself he helped deliver the Magic their first Finals victory. Early in the final quarter, he made a tough turnaround to push Orlando’s lead to eight. The Lakers came back to tie, but Pietrus followed Turkoglu’s miss with a stunning follow jam. The Magic never trailed again.

“I was trying to show Dwight a little Superman dunk,” he said.

Pietrus smiled. He knows the fun might not last long. Kobe will come at him harder than ever. Neither he nor the rest of the Magic will likely shoot as well as they did, and, to even the series, they need to win Game 4.

So, for now, Oprah can wait. Mickael Pietrus still has some work to do. No, he’s not Tony Parker. But these days who’s complaining?