Saturday, June 13, 2009

Orlando's big choke job


It's usually unfair to make bold statements in characterizing a sports event, but not this time.

So here goes.

The Orlando Magic should be ahead of the Los Angeles Lakers 3-1 in the NBA Finals instead of down by the same margin. The Magic should be on its way to securing the city's first championship.

The Magic has outplayed the Lakers in Games 2, 3 and 4 -- and won one of them.

None of this matters, of course, now. The Magic might beat the Lakers in Game 5 to send the series back to L.A., but it's highly, highly unlikely that it will win the series.

Let me amend that: It ain't happenin', and it's kind of sad.

In Game 2, the Magic designed a perfect end-game play that even had Kobe Bryant shaking his head in awe. All Courtney Lee had to do was make a layup, but he bricked the gimme at the buzzer and the Lakers went on to win in overtime.

Orlando didn't let the bad feelings linger, however, going home and winning Game 3 to make the series competitive.

Then the Magic outplayed the Lakers for most of Game 4 and had the game in hand in the final minute. But its star, Dwight Howard, couldn't make one of two free throws in the final seconds. And then the Magic inexplicably let Derek Fisher, the Lakers' second-most clutch player, shoot a long but open 3-pointer to tie the game with 4.6 seconds left.

The more I watch games, the more I'm convinced that there's only one correct strategy when leading by three points with less than 10 second remaining: You absolutely must foul the other team. Send them to the free-throw line, where they have no chance of tying the game without an offensive rebound.

This strategy should be extra safe with a dominant rebounder like Howard. The Magic could have easily fouled Fisher with about 6 seconds left.

Fisher's game-tying 3 falls on two people: coach Stan Van Gundy, who didn't tell his players to foul; and Jameer Nelson, a fairly experienced player who backed off Fisher, giving him the space to take the shot.

Unacceptable. Period.

Before the series, no one outside of Orlando would argue that the Magic was better than the Lakers. Now that can definitely be said. While the series has been hotly contested, Orlando has outplayed L.A.

But that doesn't matter one bit. Come Sunday night or Tuesday night, most likely, the Lakers will be celebrating another championship while the Magic players and coaches wonder how they let this opportunity slip away.

I liken it to the 2006 World Series, when the heavily favored Tigers literally threw away a shot at their first title since 1984 against the St. Louis Cardinals. The Tigers had rolled through the playoffs, sweeping the A's in the ALCS, while the Cardinals needed seven games to dispatch of the Mets in the NLCS.

But the Tigers' pitchers committed an unprecedented five errors, helping the Cardinals steal the series in five games and, in my humble opinion, become one of the worst World Series champions ever (not that the after-party was spoiled at all).

Now the Lakers are on the verge of "stealing" this series in five games, and give them credit. They've stepped up and outplayed the Magic in the two overtimes that shouldn't have been. And unlike the '06 Cardinals, they won't go down as one of the worst NBA championship teams. They're a legitimate championship team -- as has been said of them all season.

Are they the better team in this series, though?

It's often said that the seven-game format is fluke-proof, that the best team always comes out on top. I'm not sure that applies here.

And members of the Magic have only themselves to blame for this.

No comments: