Posted by Neil Paine on June 12, 2009
As we noted several days ago, Game 4 was essentially the second straight "must-win" game for the Orlando Magic -- their estimated probability of winning the series was already just 20% even after capturing Game 3 at home (a game which required a record-breaking shooting performance for them to narrowly defeat L.A.). Game 4 on Thursday night would be the most important of the series yet, then: Win, and you've given yourself a fighting chance again with things at 2 games apiece; lose, and face the unpleasant reality of requiring 3 straight wins (including 2 on the road) against the NBA's most talented team. In other words, it was make or break time Thursday night...
|Los Angeles Lakers||95.0||99||104.2||95.8|
...And unfortunately for the Magic and their fans, I think Orlando's second-half breakdown just allowed Los Angeles to break the series wide open. Again, defense was the order of the day -- Game 3's monstrous offensive explosion looks more and more like an aberration, doesn't it? -- as the teams combined for just 1.00 point per possession on Thursday night (by contrast, the NBA average in 2009 was 1.08). Kobe Bryant continued to attract an absurd amount of defensive attention, using nearly 38% of L.A.'s possessions when on the court, while none of his teammates who played over 10 minutes used more than 18.2%. And the toll of carrying the Laker offense was just as evident in Game 4 as it had been in Game 2, as Kobe again posted a substandard 101.8 offensive rating.
Even more surprisingly, the Magic finally held Pau Gasol to a rather human 106.0 offensive rating, when he was averaging 139.2 on the series going into the game. But several L.A. role players stepped in and performed more than admirably: Trevor Ariza, who has run hot and cold all series, finally locked in (especially in the 3rd quarter) and contributed 16 points produced at a 1.16 pts/poss clip, in addition to strong defense and hustle (he notched 9 defensive stops and tied for the game lead with a +15 rating). The man he tied with was fairly important to the Lakers, too, I'd say. Derek Fisher, whose performance vs. Denver in the WCF had many questioning if was time for Phil Jackson to tinker with the lineup, continued his strong play in the Finals with his best game yet: 11 points produced, a 120.1 offensive rating, and two incredibly clutch 3-point daggers, one of which forced OT and the other which ultimately won the game for L.A. At this point, we shouldn't be surprised to see Fisher drill crazy shots under pressure, but you still have admit that he was one of the more improbable heroes for the Lakers in this game -- he had missed each of the first 5 3-pointers he attempted before draining the game-tying bomb over Jameer Nelson.
Of course, none of these heroics would have made a bit of difference if Orlando had not allowed Los Angeles to claw their way back into the game in the second half. The Magic held a 12-point advantage over the beleaguered Lakers at the break, and Dwight Howard had been pushing the Lakers around inside on the glass and swatting shots right and left. But Howard would ultimately be the scapegoat at the end of regulation when he bricked 2 freebies with 11 seconds left in the game, setting up Fisher's miracle three 7 seconds later. Speaking of which, anybody want to bet how many words will be typed or spoken today about the defensive strategy and execution by Stan Van Gundy and Jameer Nelson, respectively, on that final Laker possession of regulation?
But more problematic for the Magic is the fact that this was the third game of the series in which they struggled to consistently score. With an offensive rating of 95.8 in Game 4, they are now averaging just 101.6 pts/100 poss on the series, and 94.1 if you toss out the aberrant hot streak of Game 3. Howard struggled for the 3rd time in 4 games, Lee continued his abysmal performance (he was so bad he got yanked with 8 minutes left in the 3rd and never saw the floor again), and even Rashard Lewis, heretofore the Magic's standby offensive dynamo when all else was going wrong, couldn't really get his shot and misfired in the rare cases he did. And did you see the botched side-out plays at the end of regulation? If I'm a Magic fan, I'm really worried about the Lakers' proven ability to clamp down on Orlando's offense during this series. And if you need to shoot 63% in order to win, I'm afraid that's a pretty unrealistic expectation game in and game out.
Are the Magic finished? Not completely, for we've seen them wiggle their way out of scrapes like this before. But the Lakers are winning the kinds of games that Orlando has been on the victorious side of all playoffs long, and they did it in Game 4 with neither Kobe nor Pau Gasol at their best. Orlando is certainly capable of winning at least 1 more game in the series, but their chances of eventually wresting the championship away from L.A.'s stranglehold are looking more and more remote:
|Lakers in 5||48.2%|
|Lakers in 6||35.1%|
|Lakers in 7||11.3%|
|Magic in 7||5.4%|