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Lakers wary of a revitalized Magic

ON THE LAKERS

The Lakers should have sensed there would be trouble, what with the never-ending string of Orlando Magic billboards dotting Interstate 4, the litany of pro-Magic banners hanging from too many buildings to count, and the impossibly long Superman cape draped over part of Amway Arena.

This definitely wasn’t Los Angeles anymore, and these certainly weren’t the Lakers who looked so confident in the first two games of the NBA Finals.

Orlando ripped through their defense, shooting a Finals-record 62.5% in a 108-104 Game 3 victory that turned this into a less-comfortable occasion for the Lakers.

The Lakers still lead the series, 2-1, but Kobe Bryant looked fatigued, making 11 of 25 shots and only five of 10 free throws on the way to 31 points. He made eight of his first 11 shots but flattened badly after a three-pointer a few minutes into the second quarter.

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After the final seconds melted away, Bryant lowered his head and stared at the court as he walked toward the locker room. Right behind him, Pau Gasol (23 points) untucked his jersey in a frustrated huff and shook his head.

This isn’t serious, but it’s now a series.

The Lakers can blame a defense that bothered Dwight Howard in the first two games but was as pliant as could be in Game 3.

All five Orlando starters made at least half their shots, as did sixth man Mickael Pietrus, a formula for a Finals victory if ever there was one.

“We lost this game in the defensive end,” Bryant said.

Howard made five of six shots, Rashard Lewis was eight for 14, Hedo Turkoglu made seven of 12, and it went on and on and on.

The Lakers had actually seen something like this before in their history, when the Chicago Bulls shot 61.7% against them in Game 2 of the 1991 Finals, a mark that is now only second-best in Finals history.

Not everybody on the Lakers was disappointed with the effort.

“Nothing was wrong,” forward Trevor Ariza said. “They were just making shots. They were hitting tough shots and they played really well in the first half.”

Orlando shot an undeniably crisp 75% in the first half, making 24 of 32 shots on the way to a 59-54 halftime lead.

The Magic led by as many as nine in the fourth quarter, but the Lakers weren’t quite done. They made a solid run and tied it, 99-99, when Gasol made two free throws with 2:41 to play.

With the Lakers down, 104-102, Bryant lost control of the ball while dribbling near the top of the key. Gasol fell on the ball, but Pietrus grabbed it when Gasol tried to pass it to Bryant.

Pietrus was then fouled by Bryant and made two free throws at the other end for a 106-102 lead with 28.7 seconds left.

The Lakers missed four three-point attempts in the final 24 seconds, all of them on the same possession.

Thinking big picture, the Lakers still hold a one-game lead. No need for panic, they said.

“You are talking to a confident group,” said Lamar Odom, who had 11 quiet points and only two rebounds. “We played everything to win this year and we are going to lose some. Tonight, we got outplayed for a long period of time. If that game had two minutes more on the clock, it could have gone either way.”

Howard and Lewis each had 21 points, and Rafer Alston had 20 after totaling only 10 in the first two games.

It was practically a must-win situation for the Magic, seeing how no team had ever come back from a 3-0 deficit to win an NBA series.

So the Magic treated a vocal crowd to the first Finals victory in franchise history.

Like the Lakers, Orlando players weren’t claiming any significant change in status after Game 3.

“This is good for the franchise to obviously get the first win in the NBA Finals, but we’re still down 2-1,” Lewis said. “We’re excited about being at home, playing at home. We think our crowd really does give us extra energy.”

The Lakers, who have now lost seven road games in a row in the Finals, were the energetic ones in the first quarter.

That’s when Bryant had 17 points on seven-for-10 shooting and also had three assists. He also had the 11th four-point play in Finals history, making a three-pointer from the right side and an ensuing free throw after being fouled by Pietrus with 30 seconds left in the first quarter.

Bryant had only 10 points in the second half, however.

“This is not a cupcake team,” he said of Orlando.

Indeed, it was a sweet night for the Magic.

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mike.bresnahan@latimes.com


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