ORLANDO — For weeks, the Magic has specialized in the improbable.
A comeback against the 76ers in the first round. Another against the Celtics in the semifinals. An upset against LeBron James and the top-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference final.
This time it's different. This time the Magic needs to pull off the impossible.
Oh, technically the NBA Finals are still far from complete. Orlando still has another home game on Sunday night. And if you buy the old coaching mantra of one-game-at-a-time, you can picture a scenario where the Magic still comes away with a title.
But realistically, the end is near. You could see it the moment the ball left Derek Fisher's fingertips in the final minute of overtime on Thursday night. You could see it in the frustration of Mickael Pietrus when he whacked Pau Gasol from behind in the final seconds. You could see it on the scoreboard that betrayed an arena filled with fans after looking so friendly for most of the night.
The truth is, Orlando blew its chance to be the champion of the NBA in Game 4 on Thursday night.
The Magic should have won the game. It should have tied the series at two games apiece. It should have knocked the Lakers back on their heels with another game at Amway Arena two days away.
Orlando had a 12-point lead at halftime and gave it away. It had a five-point lead in the final 40 seconds of regulation and gave it away. It had momentum after beginning overtime with a 3-pointer and gave it away.
If things do not change drastically in the final three games of the series, this is the night Magic players will remember forever. It won't be the blowout in Game 1. It won't be the close loss in Game 2. It will be the choke in Game 4.
This was the game the Magic needed to win. This was the game the Magic should have won.
But Orlando gave it away with 15 misses at the free-throw line. It gave it away with 17 turnovers. It gave it away with defensive lapses at absolutely the wrong time.
It is not like Kobe Bryant took this game over. At least that would have been understandable. You can accept a loss when the greatest player in the game is the one hitting all the shots and making all the plays.
But Bryant was not the difference in the fourth quarter and overtime. He scored some points, and he made a few assists, but he also threw up a bunch of ugly shots and turned the ball over far too much.
Instead, the Magic was beaten by a 34-year-old guard who had been largely absent for most of the night. After missing his first five 3-pointers of the game, Fisher connected with 4.6 seconds remaining in regulation to tie the score.
"That will haunt me forever," Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy said.
If Orlando had reached this point in the season by being one of the most balanced teams in the league, it screwed up Game 4 in the final seconds of regulation with a team-wide comedy of errors.
Center Dwight Howard blew a chance to put the game out of reach when he missed two three throws with 11.1 seconds remaining with an 87-84 lead. Van Gundy may have made a tactical error by not ordering a foul before the Lakers could get off a 3-point shot. And Jameer Nelson messed up by giving Fisher too much room to take his 3-pointer.
"We thought 11 seconds was too early to foul, especially the way we were shooting free throws. In retrospect, I wish we had," Van Gundy said. "We just gave (Fisher) so much space to shoot the ball. We played like we were trying to prevent the layup. We just didn't play Derek Fisher. We just didn't guard him. But no, it was my decision not to foul. In retrospect, I regret it."
The NBA has had its share of postseason upsets through the years, but for the most part, great teams almost always win. This is why the NBA has more repeat winners and dynasties than the NFL or major-league baseball.
Teams that win 65 or more games during the regular season almost always win the NBA title. Before this season, 13 teams had won at least 65 games, and 11 went on to be crowned champions.
That means only two underdogs have bounced a 65-win team: the 2007 Golden State Warriors and the 1973 New York Knicks.
And then came the Magic.
Orlando had already beaten the 66-win Cavaliers, and it could have put the 65-win Lakers in a bind. Should Orlando somehow come back to win this series, it would be arguably the hardest path to the championship in league history.
As it is, it looks like a series that will have the Magic forever wondering about the final minutes of Game 4.
|Lakers 3, Magic 1|
|Game 1||Lakers 100, Magic 75|
|Game 2||Lakers 101, Magic 96 OT|
|Game 3||Magic 108, Lakers 104|
|Thurs.||Lakers 99, Magic 91 OT|
|Sunday||at Orlando, 8, Ch. 28|
|Tuesday||at Los Angeles, 9, Ch. 28*|
|June 18||at Los Angeles, 9, Ch. 28*|
* If necessary