The Orlando Magic had never won an NBA Finals game.
If they ever needed a win, it was tonight. The Magic could not afford to go down three games to one in their NBA Finals matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers.
As one might expect, Rafer Alston finally got his rhythm back in the first quarter. He hit on 4-for-4 shots, one from beyond the arc for 11 points. But Kobe Bryant was even better, shooting 7-for-10, most of them tightly contested shots, including two three-pointers.
Overall, the Magic shot 69 percent to the Lakers 53 percent. But with Bryant scoring 17 of the Lakers’ last 19 points, the Lakers took a 31-27 first quarter lead.
The Magic’s hot shooting continued in the second quarter. They shot over 76 percent for most of the quarter, but trailed the Lakers until the 4:28 mark. The lead went back and forth until the Magic finally took a 59-54 lead into the locker room, thanks to back-to-back three-pointers from Rashard Lewis.
The Magic ended the half with the highest shooting percentage, 75 percent, in NBA Finals history. But Bryant kept the Lakers close with his 21 first half points.
Pau Gasol only played 15 minutes while Van Gundy kept Dwight Howard in for 22 minutes. With Van Gundy coaching as though this were an elimination game, he would probably keep Howard in for the all of the second half.
Understandably, the Magic were getting the calls, and the Lakers weren’t.
So, who would cool off in the second half? The Magic, Bryant, or the officials?
It wasn’t the referees, as the calls continued to go the Magic’s way in the third quarter. And it wasn’t Rafer Alston who was more than making up for the shots he missed in the first two games of the series.
Instead, it was Bryant who missed 4-of-5 free throws, committed two turnovers, and two personal fouls and didn’t have a basket until the 1:20 mark. He hit only one of his last nine after starting the game at 8-for-10.
It was Gasol once again as he did in Game Two, who kept the Lakers close at both ends. But not close enough, as the Magic still shot 65 percent and finished the quarter with an 81-75 lead.
The Lakers started the fourth quarter hitting eight of their first eight shots, but were getting into foul trouble at the other end. Orlando hit their first six foul shots to stay in front. Then the Lakers defense stiffened with back-to-back-to-back stops, and Gasol tied the game at 99 with two clutch free throws.
But Mickael Pietrus got a put back, and Alston hit 1-of-2 free throws to put the Magic back up by three points. Gasol cut it to one point with a dunk. Lewis nailed a clutch jump shot to give the Magic a 104-101 lead.
Bryant missed his fifth free throw and could have been the goat of the game. But Lamar Odom saved him with a terrific block of a Lewis’ sure-thing layup.
But Bryant, who was nearly the goat in Game Two, was determined to be the hero in this one. Unfortunately for the Lakers, he turned out to be the goat as he dribbled right into a Howard steal. That’s not a typo. Yes, Dwight Howard stole the ball from the NBA’s best closer.
Gasol got the ball back, however, and flipped it to Bryant, who immediately fumbled it away. Then he turned around and fouled Alston, whose free throws gave Orlando a four point lead, 106-102.
Bryant threw up a three point brick that Odom saved from going out of bounds. After a Derek Fisher miss, Bryant got the rebound and put it in. But it was too little, about 30 seconds too late.
Although he had 31 points, Bryant made only three of his last thirteen and committed four turnovers. The last one gave the Magic their first win of all time in an NBA Finals game, 108-104.
Of course, the Magic deserve all the credit for not letting up and keeping the pressure on the Lakers who never led in the second half. They shot 62.5 percent for the game and had five players with 18 points or more.
Howard and Lewis had 21 points each. Rafer Alston finished with 20 points, and Pietrus had 18 points off the bench. Once again Howard had a game-high 14 rebounds.
Gasol finished with 23 points on 9-of-11 shooting. Trevor Ariza had 13 points along with seven rebounds and two steals. Odom and Jordan Farmar each had 11 points.
It was obvious Bryant was way too aggressive and tried to do too much in the second half. When you have Gasol making 9-of-11 shots, your ball handlers have to get him the ball.
Asked why Bryant wasn’t effective as a closer tonight, Phil Jackson remarked, "We’re all frail as humans, sometimes not as much as others."
Need we say more? Game Four is Thursday night in Orlando.