Orlando Magic center Dwight “Superman” Howard looked at forward Hedo Turkoglu, who had the ball on the right wing, motioned towards the rim, then spun off Los Angeles Lakers center Pau Gasol, leaped, snatched a perfectly placed lob pass, and threw it down with authority. Howard posed for a second, then trotted back to play defense.
Turkoglu played it cool as well, showing hardly any emotion before running down to the other end. This dunk was easy, but it epitomized how easy points were coming to the Magic. They made 75 percent of their field-goal attempts in the first half, and a mind-boggling 62 percent for the game, en route to a victory they desperately needed.
After struggling with his shot for the first two games, point guard Rafer “Skip To My Lou” Alston caught fire, hitting a corner three-pointer, a few mid-range jumpers, and his patented floater. He scored eleven points in the first quarter, making all four shots from the floor, including one of only five three-pointers made by Orlando in the game.
Forwards Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu, as well as guards Mickael Pietrus and Courney Lee, usually fire at will from deep, but went away from the three-pointer, deciding instead to take an aggressive approach. This paid dividends, but even though they were in a groove, so was the lethal Laker Kobe Bryant.
Bryant upstaged Alston’s first quarter performance with 18 points in the period. He, like his counterparts, had a tough time missing, no matter the degree of difficulty. Yet, unlike in past playoff performances, his success didn’t continue. He scored just four points in the second quarter, and managed only 13 total in the final three quarters. Despite his struggles, his Lakers were in contention.
Though they remained close, they couldn’t find a way to take the Magic out of their comfort zone. Orlando didn’t stick to the scouting report they gave to the Lakers, finally figuring out that two-point baskets can be just as debilitating to their opponent as chucked shots from deep.
These two-pointers weren’t the meant-to-be-a-three-but-my-toe-was-on-the-line type. For once, they were mid-range shots and drives to the rim.
Finally, they used their size as an advantage. For the first two games of the series, Turkoglu and Lewis, both 6′10”, camped out in three-point land, refusing to understand that if they did something other than launch 25-footers their team would be more successful.
In Game Two, this duo took 18 three-pointers. They made nine, but frequent droughts hampered their team’s chances of finding a rhythm on offense. In Game Three, they took half as many, and the Magic were better off because of it.
Mickael Pietrus provided a spark off the bench, scoring 18 points, but the real damage, aside from Turkoglu and Lewis’s combined 39 points, was the production of Howard and Alston. Superman scored 21 points, while taking just six shots from the field. He made five of them, and 11-of-16 free throws. Skip To My Lou was just as efficient, adding 20 points on 8-of-12 shooting.
Howard benefited the most from Orlando’s new offensive philosophy, setting up down low to score at will. His teammates would miss him periodically, but for the most part, he was their main go-to guy. This was a long time coming. Howard has always possessed the skills to dominate in the paint, but head coach Stan Van Gundy saw nothing wrong with living and dying with the three-pointer.
Gundy’s Magic got away with this offensive scheme for a majority of the season and the playoffs because Lewis, Turkoglu, Alston, Pietrus, and Lee were so prolific, but it backfired in the first two games against Los Angeles. They needed this change if they wanted any chance of sticking in the series.
What is scary about this team is the fact that they can win by raining three-pointers all night, or by feeding Howard. They chose the latter in the final game of their series against the Cleveland Cavaliers, when Howard dropped 40 points, as well as in this must-win Game Three.
Even though Howard got his touches and made the most of them, Orlando kept their lead thanks to their guard-play. Pietrus backed down Bryant on the right wing, turned, and hoisted. Add another move in the Frenchman’s repertoire which, like the shot, suprised me. It shouldn’t have been so startling, considering it seemed everything the Magic threw up went in.
When they did miss, as Turkoglu did with a little over two minutes remaining, a teammate was there to clean up the mess. This time it was Pietrus, who anticipated the miss, skying for the put-back dunk.
The Magic rarely missed consecutive shots. It took them until the end of the third quarter to miss three straight attempts from the field. They were clicking on all cylinders, determined to avenge a heartbreaking Game Two defeat by climbing back into the series.
A minute after Pietrus’ dunk, Orlando held a one-point lead and was in possession. With the shot clock winding down, Alston found Lewis at the top of the key. The forward didn’t hesitate, canning the long jumper to stretch the margin to three points.
The shot, unlike many made by the Magic, was meant to be a three-pointer, but his toe grazed the line. This might have cost them on any other night, but given their new-found acceptance of the two-pointer, the loss of a point was bearable.
The victory was capped off by four missed free throws by Bryant, and two made by both Pietrus and Lewis. The Magic found a way to win. If they continue to be aggressive and shoot as well as they did, the Lakers will be in serious trouble.