- The Washington Times - Friday, June 12, 2009

It wasn’t pretty, but the Los Angeles Lakers found a way to get the job done.

After stumbling listlessly through the first half of Thursday night’s Game 4 of the NBA Finals, the Lakers wiped out a double-digit halftime deficit, led briefly, rallied yet again to force overtime and held on for a 99-91 victory over the Orlando Magic at Amway Arena.

Thanks to a 13-point third quarter by small forward Trevor Ariza, two clutch 3-pointers from Derek Fisher, a breakaway dunk late in overtime from Pau Gasol and 32 points from Kobe Bryant, the Lakers took a 3-1 lead in the series. They now stand one victory shy of capturing the 15th championship in franchise history.

After Bryant and Co. fell short 108-104 in Tuesday’s Game 3, the popular belief was that Bryant and the Lakers would try to impose their will from the start of Game 4.

But Los Angeles wasn’t in control of anything in the first half. In fact, the Lakers looked downright feeble, shooting 33.3 percent from the field while getting bullied on the glass by Orlando.

With a running teardrop over backup center D.J. Mbenga with a little less than a minute left in the first quarter, Rafer Alston gave the Magic a 24-17 advantage over the Lakers, their largest lead of the game at that point. Bryant nailed a 3-pointer over J.J. Redick with time running down, however, and pulled the Lakers within 24-20 heading into the second quarter.

Los Angeles shot 35 percent from the field in the first quarter. And after one quarter, Dwight Howard had 11 of his team’s 12 rebounds, while the Lakers had just seven total.

The Magic kept rolling in the second quarter, extending their lead to 49-37 at halftime thanks to a balanced offensive attack that saw them receive 13 points from their bench.

The Lakers’ struggles continued as they shot 7-for-22 from the field and 1-for-7 from 3-point range. Aside from Bryant’s 16 points, no other Lakers player had more than seven points at the break.

In the third quarter, the Lakers received a transfusion of life. They opened with an 18-5 run in the first six-plus minutes to take a 55-54 lead.

Fueling the run was Ariza, who had 11 points on 5-for-6 shooting (2-for-3 from beyond the arc) during Los Angeles’ charge. His tally increased to 13 by the end of the third quarter, when the Lakers led 67-63.

“We came out of the locker room at halftime with determination,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. “We thought we played really poorly. We got hamstrung a little bit in the first half with our guys getting in foul trouble, all of our bigs, and we had to play really soft, and we were soft and consequently got behind.

“They were tired in the fourth quarter but got back in the game, and Fish made a tremendous shot,” Jackson added. “A big shot to tie that game and to give us some momentum to win that overtime game.”

The Lakers’ lead fluctuated between three and five points for much of the fourth quarter until Orlando came back and took a brief 76-75 lead thanks to a Mickael Pietrus breakaway layup with a little more than five minutes left to go.

Bryant fired back with a tough turnaround jumper over Pietrus on the other end. But two minutes later, Hedo Turkoglu knotted the score again at 79-79, going 1-for-2 at the foul line. Howard then blocked Fisher, hustled down to the offensive end and put the Magic on top 82-79 with an impressive reverse layup and free throw with 3:02 left.

Answering the call again, Ariza swished home a 3-pointer with one second left on the shot clock, tying the score.

Turkoglu responded with a 3 of his own, and after yet another Howard block, this time on Gasol, Turkoglu scored on a runner to lift Orlando to an 87-82 edge with 1:34 remaining. Bryant connected with Gasol for a trailing dunk that pulled the Lakers within 87-84 with 31.9 seconds left, and with time running out, Bryant fouled Howard with 10.8 seconds remaining.

Howard gave the Lakers life, however, missing both free throws. (His misses were the sixth and seventh from the foul line for the Magic in the fourth quarter alone). After Ariza grabbed the rebound, a timeout was called.

Bryant got the inbounds pass and flipped it over Turkoglu’s head to Ariza, who lofted it to Fisher. The point guard darted up the court unimpeded and drilled a pull-up 3 over Jameer Nelson, tying the game at 87-87 with 4.6 seconds left.

“We gave him so much space to shoot the ball. We played like we were trying to keep from giving up the layup.” Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy said. “Nomally 11 seconds is too early to foul, though when they took it fullcourt, I’ve got to go back and look at that. It’ll haunt me forever.”

Orlando called a timeout but couldn’t inbound the ball and had to burn another timeout.

Pietrus got the inbounds pass on the second attempt, but his jumper clanked off the rim, bringing on a second overtime game of the series.

With the score tied at 91-91 with 35 seconds left, Bryant drew a double-team and kicked the ball out to Fisher at the top of the key. The 13th-year veteran, criticized much of the postseason for ineffective play and aging less than gracefully, buried the 3-pointer, lifting the Lakers 96-91.

“He’s been there before. He’s been there, done that,” Bryant said of Fisher, who was 0-for-5 on 3-pointers before making his final two. “He just has supreme confidence, and I think those shots at the end of the game are actually easier for him than the other ones.”

On the opposite end, Turkoglu missed a 3-pointer and Gasol tracked down a long rebound, raced the length of the court and dunked the ball for the dagger that made the score 96-91 with 21.6 seconds left. Gasol flushed one more dunk with 3.4 seconds left, icing the win.

“It’s a tough loss, man,” said Turkoglu (25 points), whose team committed 19 turnovers. “We had it but just kind of slipped away because of our stupidness.”

The teams have the next two days off before what could be a deciding Game 5 on Sunday at Amway Arena. A Lakers win and Phil Jackson earns his 10th ring as a coach, becoming the league’s all-time leader, and Bryant wins his fourth. A Magic win means the game shifts back to Los Angeles on Tuesday for Game 6.

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