NBA FINALS / ON THE LAKERS
The game hopped in and out of the Lakers’ grasp, off to a staggeringly slow start but a quarter-inch from ending in Orlando’s favor before the Lakers tucked away a victory, sighing heavily when it all finally ended.
It wasn’t beautiful, and it certainly wasn’t Kobe Bryant’s night, but Game 2 of the NBA Finals belonged to the Lakers after a 101-96 overtime victory Sunday against the Magic.
Lamar Odom, bad back and everything, was an important part of it, and struggling veteran Derek Fisher had a big steal in overtime of a game in which Bryant had 29 points on 10-for-22 shooting but also committed seven turnovers.
The Lakers lead the series, 2-0, though it could have easily been tied at 1-1 if Courtney Lee’s layup attempt off a lob pass from Hedo Turkoglu had hit the inside of the rim and fallen through instead of bouncing off the outer part as regulation expired.
There were 23 lead changes and 21 ties, and any Lakers fan who left Staples Center without feeling a little bit drained must have been one of the newer bandwagon types.
After it ended, and the Lakers had exhaustingly moved another step toward their first championship since 2002, Bryant continued to show a stern demeanor, accurately signaling the Lakers’ mind-set in the wake of a near-loss at home.
“What’s there to be happy about?” he said. “The job is not finished. Is the job finished? I don’t think so.”
The math doesn’t look good for the Magic. Only 14 NBA teams in 222 tries have ever come back from a 2-0 deficit to win a best-of-seven series. That’s only a 6.3% success rate.
The next three games, assuming they’re all necessary, will be in Orlando, starting Tuesday with Game 3.
That the Magic won’t be going home with a split at Staples Center came down to the simplest of physics.
With 0.6 seconds left in regulation and the score tied at 88-88, Lee almost converted a well-executed inbounds play.
Turkoglu, inbounding from the right side, found Lee open on a cut down the left side after Bryant was erased up top on a Rashard Lewis screen.
Lee’s layup attempt caromed a bit too hard off the backboard, energy that transferred to the ball’s bouncing off the front of the rim.
“Honestly, it was just a brilliant play,” Bryant said.
Bryant was asked what he thought when the ball was in the air. He cursed.
Orlando’s pain, however, was worse than Bryant’s.
Lewis had 34 points and Turkoglu had 22, but the Magic couldn’t quite squeeze out a victory.
Despite the 2-0 deficit, Orlando Coach Stan Van Gundy invoked the fact that Miami came back from the same deficit to win the NBA Finals three years ago against Dallas.
“I’ve seen series turn,” Van Gundy said. “Right now [it’s] extremely frustrating not to have gotten [Game 2]. We had chances to win.”
Bryant, after a sterling Game 1 effort, said he was “absolutely not” up to his own standards in Game 2, saying he failed to read the Magic’s defense as well as he did in scoring 40 points three days earlier.
In fact, Bryant’s short jump shot was blocked from behind by Turkoglu with 1.8 seconds left in regulation, taking away the Lakers’ chances of winning before overtime.
Fortunately for the Lakers, Pau Gasol again collected his consistently competent numbers, scoring 24 points and taking 10 rebounds. He had seven points in overtime, including a three-point play off a feed from Bryant that gave the Lakers a 97-91 edge with 1:14 to play.
Odom was again a factor, scoring 19 points on eight-for-nine shooting, although he struggled to defend Lewis. And Fisher came up with the defensive play of the game for the Lakers, stepping in front of J.J. Redick’s pass intended for Dwight Howard off a screen and roll. Fisher was fouled at the other end after pushing the ball upcourt, his free throws giving the Lakers a 94-91 lead with 1:53 left in overtime. The Lakers made their last 14 free throws.
“We were able to find other guys that did things for us,” Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said. “Lamar had an outstanding game. Pau was there again, as he is usually. We had other guys contribute as we went through.”
To say the game started slowly would be an understatement of historic proportion. In fact, the 15-15 tie after the first quarter was the lowest total for a first quarter in post-shot-clock Finals history. (The previous low was 32 points after the first quarter for the Lakers and Boston in 1969.)
The first quarter obviously wasn’t pretty. Neither was the game. But the Lakers, at this point, don’t care about artistic impression. They are two victories away from the franchise’s 15th championship, in eminently better shape than they were a year ago.