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Rob Peterson

Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Magic's mistakes make Lakers' road to title easier

By Rob Peterson,
Posted Jun 12 2009 11:20AM

ORLANDO -- In the waning moments of overtime, they showed the classic signs of fatigue. They could barely stand -- bent at the waist, hands on their shorts and heads hung low.

Were Dwight Howard and Hedo Turkoglu just plain tired? Or were they doubled over because they had taken the biggest gut punch of their professional lives? Maybe they hung their heads because they couldn't bear to watch their championship dream slip away.

Whatever the reason for their defeated posture, Howard and Turkoglu know what happened and why it happened at Amway Arena on Thursday night. They had a chance to tie this Finals series and put some real pressure on the Los Angeles Lakers.

And they blew it. Big time.

Short of setting up the stage and rolling out the Larry O'Brien trophy themselves, the Orlando Magic couldn't have done anything more on Thursday to hand the title to the Lakers.

Missed free throws, too many turnovers and a couple of questionable coaching decisions equaled one huge missed opportunity and a 99-91 Game 4 overtime loss. By falling behind 3-1 in this series, the Magic have helped seal their fate and assured L.A of a new championship.

Of the eight teams that have come back from 3-1 series deficits, none have ever done so in a Finals. Don't expect the Magic to be the first.

"Just don't stop fighting. Never stop believing," Howard said. "There's no need to ever doubt yourself or your game. There's going to be games and times in our lives where we lose, where we have to bounce back.

"So I think guys are upset about the loss because it was right there, we had the win, but there's no need to hang our heads."

Howard is correct in one sense. The Magic can be proud of what they've accomplished this postseason. But there are too many impediments -- namely a Lakers team that hasn't lost three straight since January of 2008 -- and too many reasons not to believe in Magic.

It's not because the Magic take a lot of 3-pointers or that Howard is still developing his low-post game. It's that when they absolutely, positively need to do the basics, they don't.

Turnovers and missed free throws are the things that will cause them to stay awake at night. Howard won't toss and turn thinking about his 21 boards or his Finals-record nine blocks, but he'll probably replay in his mind the eight free throws he missed, including the two he clanged with only 11.1 seconds left.

Don't just blame Howard, though. Turkoglu, a career 80 percent free throw shooter, missed four free throws in the fourth quarter. The Magic missed 15 of their 37 attempts in Game 4 and shot better from the field in Game 3 (.625) than they did from the free-throw line in Game 4 (.595).

Then there were the turnovers. In Game 2, the Magic had 20. In Game 4, the Magic had 19 in a variety of ways -- offensive fouls, three-second violations, 24-second violations and passes air-mailed into the stands. The Lakers scored 16 points off of those less-than-Magic touches.

"We pretty much beat ourselves," Magic point guard Jameer Nelson said. "I mean, they played well enough to win the game, but we made some mistakes."

One of those may have been allowing Nelson to play the game's final 18 minutes. Nelson didn't play poorly -- he had two points, three boards and three assists. But the Lakers didn't need to account for his presence on the floor as they had for starter Rafer Alston, who didn't play in the fourth quarter or OT. And it was Nelson who gave Derek Fisher too much space on Fisher's 3-pointer that tied the game at 87.

And then, with Orlando leading 87-84, was its decision not to foul Fisher before his fateful fling. Magic coach Stan Van Gundy, who has made dazzling decisions and adjustments this postseason, made a choice that even puzzled the Magic faithful.

"How could they not foul?" one fan asked incredulously.

"It was my decision with 11 seconds not to foul," Van Gundy said. "Yes, I regret it now, but only in retrospect. I mean, normally, 11 is too early. You foul, they make two free throws, you cut it to one. You're still at six or seven seconds."

It's hard to believe that after 110 games that it all came down to just 11 seconds. Now the Magic are now left to wonder how it all fell apart so suddenly.

The Lakers could empathize. In their Finals against the Celtics last year, the Lakers held a 24-point lead in Game 4, only to watch Boston storm back to win 97-91 and take a commanding 3-1 series lead. The Lakers managed to salvage Game 5, but got stomped by 39 in Boston in Game 6.

"We came in here tonight saying, 'They did it to us,'" Lakers forward Lamar Odom said of the parallel Game 4s. "We were just in this situation last year."

This year, the Lakers will return to L.A. after Game 5, but will the Magic tag along, too? Had Orlando taken care of business in Game 4, a trip west for Game 6 would be a necessity.

"It's a tough loss, man," Turkoglu said. "We had it but it just kind of slipped away because of our stupid-ness."

Rarely do you hear a player speak so candidly about a team's mental shortcomings, but Turkoglu said what many were thinking: They were fools to let this one get away.

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