ORLANDO, Fla. – They had survived bricked free throws, botched layups and error after error in blowing Game 4 of the NBA Finals.
Somehow, someway the Orlando Magic still led though, up 87-84 on the Los Angeles Lakers with 10.8 seconds remaining. The series hung in the balance and one of the great philosophical coaching debates raged for Stan Van Gundy on Thursday night.
Do you foul the Lakers before they attempt a game-tying 3-pointer, sending a player to the line for what most often are two harmless shots? Or do you let it ride on your defense, roll the dice that a great player won't make a great shot?
Van Gundy told his team not to foul.
"That one will haunt me forever," the coach said afterward, shaking his head.
Left unimpeded, Lakers guard Derek Fisher(notes) caught a pass in the back court, dribbled up the right side and hit a shot he never should've been allowed to take. His 3 with 4.6 seconds remaining sent the game to overtime. L.A. pulled away in the extra session, winning 99-91 to take a commanding 3-1 series lead. The Lakers can wrap up the championship here Sunday night.
Van Gundy had his reasons for not fouling. He felt a foul too early would turn the game into a free-throw shooting contest and his team was hitting just 59 percent (22-for-37) of theirs. He philosophically doesn't believe in doing it until "six or seven" seconds remain in the game.
Afterward though he was dealing with waves of second-guesses and coaching guilt.
"It was my decision with 11 seconds not to foul," he said. "Yes I regret it now, but only in retrospect. I mean, normally to me 11 is too early. You foul, they make two free throws, [they] cut it to one [and] you're still at six or seven seconds."
However, the dynamics of the play changed when Lakers coach Phil Jackson mistakenly thought Orlando had a foul to give. If that was the case, then the Magic could've fouled without sending a Laker to the free-throw line. L.A. would get the ball out of bounds again, but with the flow of the play disturbed.
However, while the Magic had committed just one team foul in the fourth quarter it came in the final two minutes. That meant its next foul was a shooting foul.
Jackson had it wrong though and as a result said he had the Lakers take the ball out in their backcourt because he wanted to create space to avoid the hack that it turned out was never coming.
By going full court though, it took time for Fisher to bring the ball up. The clock wound down under Van Gundy's seven-second standard, but defender Jameer Nelson(notes) did what his coach had told him.
"We weren't supposed to foul," Nelson said. "I should have pushed up on him a little more."
Van Gundy was questioning everything afterward, even acknowledging that the full-court scenario could've changed his decision.
"When they took it full court," he said, "I'll have to go back and look at that."
On the television broadcast, analyst Jeff Van Gundy, Stan's own brother, repeatedly criticized the decision by the players to let Fisher shoot.
Statistically, NBA and college teams say the odds favor fouling before a 3-pointer can be attempted.
In the Magic locker room the players weren't going to criticize their coach, but at least some of them weren't going out of their way to agree with the decision either.
For Van Gundy the decision, no matter how sound his philosophy may be, will stick with him for a long time.
He's a free-wheeling coach, gambling on playing time hunches and making occasional unorthodox moves. His decision to go with Nelson over Rafer Alston(notes) in the fourth quarter may have caused Alston to mentally cash out; the playground legend said he was "shocked" at the benching.
On the sideline Van Gundy may be in complete control, but he looks disheveled, spinning around wildly and flashing telling facial expressions.
Shaquille O'Neal(notes) called him "a master of panic" dating back to their days together with the Miami Heat. Both Shaq and Alonzo Mourning(notes) partially blamed Van Gundy for costing the Heat the 2005 Eastern Conference finals against the Pistons. Then Van Gundy was famously replaced in Miami in the middle of the 2005-06 season by team president Pat Riley, who promptly led the Heat to the NBA championship.
It's ironic how the play worked, though. It was the Hall of Famer Phil Jackson, who is now one win away from a record 10th NBA championship, who didn't know something as rudimentary as Orlando's foul situation.
Jackson's decision to take the ball out with 10.8 seconds with a full court in front of him – based on bad information – actually opened up Fisher for the three. Had Jackson gone half-court it is unlikely Fisher would've been that open.
Sometimes you win for losing.
"In retrospect we gave [Fisher] too much space to shoot the ball," Van Gundy said, throwing it back on Nelson's defense. "We played like we were trying to prevent the layup. We just didn't play Fisher, just didn't guard him."
It was the end of the Orlando collapse, the end, barring a miracle comeback, of the series. There were plenty of mistakes; missed free throws, poor execution and a coaching decision that may haunt more than just Stan Van Gundy forever and ever.