Staring down the barrel of a 0-6 record in finals franchise futility, the Orlando Magic found their stroke offensively, hit their free-throws down the stretch, and stiffened defensively writing a new chapter in franchise history defeating the Los Angeles Lakers 108-104 in Game Three Tuesday night before capacity Amway Center crowd that was raucous and rowdy from the start.
"The one thing that you can't question about our team is our resiliency," said a visibly elated Stan Van Gundy during his post-game news conference after his team narrowly escaped with the four-point must-win at home that turned a 0-2 deficit into a 2-1 sparkling glimmer of hope that extended the championship series.
Orlando's lights-out shooting performance from the field set NBA records for accuracy with an astronomically high 75 percent in the first half and a 62.5 percent average for the game.
It was tale of two halves for Lakers guard Kobe Bryant. His championship dreams turned into a bit of a nightmare, after a stellar 21-point shooting display in the first half, the perennial All-Star was ineffective in the second scoring only 10 points thanks to improved close out Orlando defense and an inexplicably poor performance at the free throw line.
In his post-game press conference a contrite Bryant confessed, "My rhythm was off at the charity stripe." Kobe not only led his team in scoring with 31 points and four three-pointers but he also tallied team dishonors in turnovers (four), fouls (five) and free-throws misses (five). "It was a bad night."
After withstanding a ferocious onslaught from the Magic and with only seconds to go the Lakers stood on the brink of putting the Magic into a 0-3 abyss that 88 others before had been unable to overcome in NBA history.
For the second consecutive game the best closer in the league could not deliver in the winning moments of regulation.
With 66 seconds remaining, the referee's correctly overturned Rashard Lewis's three-point shot making the score 104-101. Kobe took the ball at the half court line worked inside against Dwight Howard (21 pts, 14 rebs) got a foul but failed to convert both free throws.
Pau Gasol (23 pts, 3 rebs, 2 blocks) made one of few great defensive plays by the Lakers, turning away Rashard Lewis' jumper with 37.8 seconds, the Lakers still had life. That's when a stoic Mickael Pietrus stole the show.
On the ensuing Laker drive, Pietrus (18 pts, 2 rebs, 2 asts, 3 stls) blanketed Kobe up the court then miraculously poked the ball away from Pau Gasol two different times on the same play, then drew Bryant's fourth foul before calmly stepping to the line to sink two gigantic free-throws giving his team a two possession advantage at 106-102.
The Lakers would not have an answer wasting their final two timeouts and missing four straight three-pointers as the final seconds ticked down to .05 before Bryant finally got a layup to fall to make it 106-104. With no timeouts Bryant was forced to foul with .02 remaining sending Rashard Lewis to the line who provided the final two magical strokes to seal the victory.
Thanks to Orlando's French Connection there will be no Laker brooms at Thursday's Game Four which just got a little more interesting!