ORLANDO, Fla. - The two worst misses of Dwight Howard's career set the stage for the two most thrilling shots of Derek Fisher's career. The shots also swung the NBA Finals from a toss-up to an almost foregone conclusion.
After Howard, the Magic's 23-year-old All-Star center, missed a pair of late free throws Thursday that would have iced Game 4, Los Angeles point guard Fisher drilled a three-pointer with 4.6 seconds remaining to force overtime. In the extra period, Fisher made another three-pointer to break a tie with 31.3 seconds remaining. The Lakers went on to win, 99-91, and take a 3-1 lead in the series. All 29 teams that have taken a 3-1 lead in previous Finals have won the NBA title. Sunday, the Lakers will try to become the 30th.
Fisher showed little emotion after the first three-pointer fell. After the second, he simply smiled. "I just sensed that was the dagger," he said.
The mood in the Los Angeles locker room would have been much more tense had Howard made either one of the two free throws he shot after Kobe Bryant wrestled him to the ground with 11.1 seconds remaining and the Magic up three. Howard missed both, and the Lakers took the ball with 10.8 seconds remaining. "I just missed 'em," Howard said. "I've been working on my free throws, but they just weren't falling tonight."
Coach Phil Jackson opted not to take the ball at midcourt because he thought - incorrectly, it turned out - that the Magic had a foul to burn. The Lakers had hoped to create a shot for Bryant (32 points), but he was double-teamed. Bryant passed to Trevor Ariza, who flung the ball to Fisher, a 12-year veteran who had missed his previous five three-point attempts.
Fisher, who also played on Jackson's first three championship teams in Los Angeles before leaving for Golden State in 2004, caught the ball on the right wing. He shot over Jameer Nelson's outstretched fingers. When the ball swished through, it tied the score and silence the Amway Arena crowd. The Magic still had 4.6 seconds, but Mickael Pietrus missed a jumper as time expired.
To a man, the Lakers said they had the utmost faith in Fisher in such a critical situation. "He's been there before," Bryant said. "He's been there, done that. ... He just has supreme confidence. I think those shots at the end of the game are actually easier for him."
The missed free throws marred a 16-point, 21-rebound, nine-block performance by Howard. And to place the blame squarely on those missed free throws would be unfair. Hedo Turkoglu also missed three of four in the final 5:06, and the Magic shot 59.5 percent from the line as a team. "What do you want me to say? We missed key free throws," Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said. "Obviously, it made a huge impact."
Tuesday, the Magic set a Finals record by shooting 62.5 percent for the game and a playoff record by shooting 75 percent for the first half. Orlando couldn't match that accuracy in Thursday's first half, but the Magic more than made up for that by holding the Lakers to 33 percent shooting. Orlando went into the break up 49-37, but the Magic would return to the court to find a very different group of Lakers.
Los Angeles hustled on both ends of the court and quickly erased the deficit. Halfway through the third, Andrew Bynum sank an 11-foot jumper to cap an 18-5 run and give the Lakers their first lead since 2-0.The Lakers stretched their lead to six early in the fourth, but the Magic refused to let the series slip away without a fight.
Orlando retook the lead after Pietrus converted a three-point play after being fouled by Bryant on a driving layup. The Magic pushed the lead to five with when Hedo Turkoglu hit a runner in the lane with 1:34 remaining. A Gasol dunk off a no-look pass from Bryant slashed the lead to three with 31.9 seconds remaining. On the ensuing Magic possession, Howard caught the ball in the lane and Bryant threw him down.
Two missed free throws later, Howard had given the Lakers the opening they needed to seize control of the series. Van Gundy considered ordering his players to foul, but he opted not to because he worried the Magic would lose the ensuing free-throw shooting contest.
"That'll haunt me forever," Van Gundy said.