Orlando 108, L.A. Lakers 104 (L.A. Lakers lead series 2-1)
Offensive Ratings: Orlando 132.0, L.A. Lakers 118.5
Finally, after six unsuccessful tries, the Orlando Magic can lay claim to a victory in the NBA Finals. As it turns out, 62.5 percent shooting from the field was only good enough to get the Magic to a close finish. This time, Orlando made the key scores and stops to prevail in Game Three.
The big difference for the Magic was the play of the team's guards. In Game Two, Stan Van Gundy got little production from any of the variety of players besides Hedo Turkoglu he tried in the backcourt--starters Rafer Alston and Courtney Lee and reserves Jameer Nelson, MickaŽl Pietrus and J.J. Redick. Last night, Redick never got off the bench, Nelson played just 11 minutes and Turkoglu spent no time in the backcourt. The group of Alston, Lee and Pietrus proved more than equal to the task, combining for 42 points on 31 shooting possessions.
At the other end, Lee and Pietrus had their best game against Kobe Bryant. Even when Bryant was going off for 17 points on 7-of-10 shooting in the first quarter, the Magic was executing its game plan defensively and forcing Bryant into long two-point attempts. The only criticism ABC commentator Jeff Van Gundy could find was that Orlando could have done a better job forcing Bryant to his left. Lo and behold, the hot start proved fool's gold, and those shots would not go down all night long. Bryant missed 11 of his 15 attempts the rest of the way and finished with 31 points on 30 shooting possessions. (The Magic did get a break in that Bryant had unexpected difficulty at the line, missing half of his 10 free-throw attempts.)
Lee set the tone with his defense in the third quarter. Aside from falling for Bryant's up-fake once and getting caught with his hands on him beyond the arc as Bryant fired another time, both resulting in trips to the foul line, Lee played textbook defense on Bryant, giving him no space to operate offensively. Pietrus then spelled Lee for the final 14 minutes and got help from Dwight Howard in executing against the Bryant/Gasol pick-and-roll that the Lakers went to six times in the final five minutes.
All of that sounds like it should have added up to an easy Orlando victory, and it's tough to pinpoint exactly why that wasn't the case. It was Bryant who kept the Lakers in the game in the first half, and at times down the stretch the Magic threatened to pull away. By the 2:41 mark of the game, however, the Lakers had rallied to tie. Certainly, Pau Gasol deserves much of the credit. Gasol was extraordinarily efficient on offense, scoring 23 points on 14 shooting possessions. Jordan Farmar also gave the Lakers a nice lift off the bench, coming up with two key scores while Bryant was resting at the start of the fourth quarter.
The key question going forward is why Orlando shot the ball so well. In no small part, this can probably be attributed to shot-making. The Magic made countless difficult shots, the kinds that the team was hitting in the Eastern Conference Finals but not in the first two games of this series. Alston offered a flashback performance, and his old playground nickname "Skip to My Lou" was probably trotted out more times last night than in the entirety of the playoffs thus far. I've commented at times during the postseason that Alston no longer has much ability to create on his own, but for at least one night it returned. It wasn't all good, as Alston committed a couple of ill-advised turnovers, but the Magic needed his 20-point effort.
Howard had probably his most effective post game of the series. Again, the Lakers were able to limit his attempts from the field (six in all, making five of them), but they also sent Howard to the free-throw line 14 times. His post position was much better than it has been in the first two games of this series, and Howard was able to utilize the pick-and-roll to create opportunities down low in the way he did against Cleveland. The pick-and-roll game in general was much more efficient for the Magic, generating shots or driving lines for the team's wing players when the Lakers were forced to give Trevor Ariza more help than he required in Game Two.
Down the stretch, we saw a couple variations of Orlando's default Turkoglu/Howard pick-and-roll that I thought were effective. Twice, once with the clock running down after a failed Turkoglu/Howard pick-and-roll, we saw Rafer Alston initiate the pick-and-roll as the ballhandler. This does more to play to the Lakers' weaknesses, and while it did not open up opportunities for either Alston or Howard, it did give wings (Turkoglu once, Lewis the other time) a chance to drive. Turkoglu's miss was tipped in by Pietrus, while the Lakers did a good job of closing down Lewis and forcing him to miss. What I especially liked was one play where the Magic first had Lewis screen for Turkoglu, knowing that with two players of similar size involved in the screen the Lakers would switch Lamar Odom on to Turkoglu in place of Ariza. Orlando then went to the staple Turkoglu/Howard pick-and-roll with Odom in the relatively unfamiliar position of having to navigate the screen. Turkoglu was able to draw a shooting foul on the play.
The Lakers went primarily to a set that saw Gasol come up to screen for Bryant on the left side of the floor. The Magic eventually started trapping Bryant with Howard and Pietrus even before Gasol got a chance to screen, trying to take the ball out of Bryant's hands. This led to the best sequence the Lakers had late, Bryant finding Gasol in the paint for a finish in traffic amongst smaller defenders.
Oddly, it was after that play that the Lakers went away from the side pick-and-roll and had Gasol set the screen at the top of the key. Bryant found more room to attack in this set, getting to the line off an aggressive drive to the hoop. It was from this set that Orlando came up with the game's biggest stop, Howard reaching in to poke the ball away from Bryant when he drove with just under 30 seconds left in a two-point game. Pietrus was fouled as he recovered the ball and made both free throws; the Lakers never again got the ball with a chance to tie or take the lead.
The Magic will have to execute better in Game Four, as surely 62.5 percent shooting is not in the offing again. Still, by winning Game Three, Orlando has made this a series.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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