In desperation, Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James drove downcourt, pulled up at the three-point line, and hoisted.
Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard, trailing the play, leaped, timing James’ jump shot perfectly, swatted his attempt and grabbed the rebound.
A foul was called, even though one wasn’t committed. Howard, the rest of the Magic, and their fans were in disbelief.
The terrible call was Howard’s sixth foul, sending him to the bench for the remainder. Luckily for Orlando, a win was already within their grasp, even when James’ three free throws swished through.
The Magic played their game, integrating Howard early in their offensive scheme. He scored six of their first nine points, making the most of his touches deep in the paint. Orlando stretched a 9-2 lead to 14-6 on a three-pointer by Rashard Lewis.
But then, at the halfway mark, Howard committed his second foul, sending him to the bench for the remainder of the first quarter. His team didn’t miss a beat in his absence, as point guard Rafer Alston picked up the slack, hitting four straight jump shots to maintain a seven-point advantage.
Cleveland climbed back into contention, starting the second period on a 17-5 spurt. Despite their resilience, this was not their night.
Momentum did not carry over from James’ three-pointer that won Game Two. Orlando, having split the first two games, was comfortable in their friendly confines. This run wasn’t about to affect the Magic negatively. They couldn’t afford to give in to the Cavaliers, and let James beat them again. They knew how important it was to put the heartbreaking defeat behind them and play well on their home floor.
After a timeout called by Stan Van Gundy to calm his team, Hedo Turkoglu was aggressive, setting the tone for the rest of the game. He drove right into Cleveland center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, drawing the foul, then hit the ensuing two free throws. Minutes later, fellow forward Rashard Lewis scored four straight points, including a dunk off a feed from Turkoglu that regained the lead.
Orlando maintained a slim one-point advantage at the half. They hadn’t played their best basketball in the first two quarters, but benefited from timely baskets and poor shooting by Cleveland. Considering Howard sat on the bench for twelve minutes and Turkoglu had yet to make a shot from the field, the Magic had to be proud of their positioning.
Both teams lived at the free-throw line throughout, but especially in the second half. Eighteen combined free throws were taken in the third quarter alone. Orlando took twelve of them, and made eleven. The final of the kind in the quarter, made by Mikael Pietrus, completed a three-point play that increased their advantage to seven points.
The Cavaliers tried to make a comeback, but every attempt was answered by the Magic. The deficit was trimmed to five points seven times over the final seven minutes. But they could get no closer.
The first time, Pietrus made a layup. The second time? Two free throws by Turkoglu. The third time, Howard made three of four free throws. The fourth time, a three-pointer by Alston. The fifth time, two more free throws by Howard. The sixth: A free throw by Lewis. Then, the seventh, made possible by the three free throws by James: five unanswered points by Orlando for a convincing ten-point victory.
Cleveland did everything possible to lose the game. They shot only 37 percent from the floor, made just 5-of-26 three-pointers, missed nine free throws, managed a measly eight bench points, and were reduced a one-man show.
James, despite his inability to make a jump shot (he converted on just two of thirteen outside shots), somehow scored 41 points. He benefited from 18 free throws made on 24 attempts. Yet, despite his offensive production, the Cavaliers didn’t have a chance.
Orlando did everything in their power to win. Howard played only 28 minutes, but scored 24 points, grabbed eight rebounds, and was stellar—for him—at the free-throw line, making 14 of 19 taken.
The Magic took 51 free-throws as a team, easily winning the battle in the physicality category. Turkoglu, surprisingly, hit one field goal, but made an impact in every other way. He snatched 10 rebounds and dished seven assists, and managed a double-double in spite of his shooting woes, connecting on eleven of twelve free throws taken.
Pietrus doubled the Cavaliers bench production by himself, scoring 16 points to go along with six rebounds, two steals, and two blocks. His physicality and explosiveness as their sixth man was too tough for Cleveland to handle.
His entire team was as well, as everyone possessed the same mindset. This intensity and their determination to avenge Game Two wore down the Cavaliers and took back control of a series they should win.