A Thin Line Between Championship and Choke

By Michael Wilbon
Saturday, June 13, 2009


The NBA Finals should be on the verge of something special, certainly something long and potentially dramatic. Should be, but isn't.

Sometimes even a team that could be worthy of a championship simply sabotages itself and becomes the subject of either ridicule or pity, which is exactly where the Orlando Magic lives now.

What could be a 3-1 Orlando lead, or at the very least should be a 2-2 Finals deadlock, is now a 3-1 deficit with the Lakers set to win a championship here Sunday night. Instead of riding the momentum of a Game 4 victory and the good feelings that accompany hosting a week-long championship festival at home, Orlando's players and coaches now have to figure out how to dig themselves out of a basketball hell, the kind that comes when a team puts its hands on its own throat and turns certain victory into defeat.

"That one will haunt me forever," Coach Stan Van Gundy said afterward.

He was talking specifically of the dilemma any coach faces at the end of a game when deciding whether to foul or defend when clinging to a three-point lead. But Van Gundy could have been just as easily talking about the last minute of Game 4 here Thursday night, or the series in general, which the Magic had every chance to be leading by now.

This is the agony of defeat, or even worse the agony of being on the brink of defeat. Nobody likes to be associated with the word "choke" in sports, but there's no way of avoiding it in assessing how the Lakers got to be up 3-1 in this series. Orlando, the best jump-shooting team in the game today and the first jump-shooting team to reach the championship round, missed 15 free throws. At home. Hedo Turkoglu, who played a brilliant all-around floor game, missed four in the fourth quarter. Dwight Howard missed two with 11 seconds to go, when one make would have given Orlando a tie in the series.

Howard's misses essentially handed the Lakers the series. My friend Larry Irving, a New Yorker and a basketball fanatic if there ever was one, turned off his television when Howard missed the two foul shots. Why? "Because you know the ending," he told me. "You know that with Kobe Bryant, Derek Fisher and Trevor Ariza on the floor, the Lakers are going to hit a three-pointer to take it to overtime and win the game. It's like an episode of 'Dallas.' You know Cliff Barnes had no chance to beat J.R. Ewing at that point, so why do you need to watch?"

I'm a little more forgiving about Howard missing the foul shots than I am Turkoglu missing his. Big men miss free throws every night, lots of them, since Dr. Naismith hung peach baskets in Springfield. But Turkoglu, he's a shooter. His four misses in the fourth quarter were doom.

Shooters can't miss free throws like that, not at home, not with something so everlasting on the line. But he did. And Howard did, and then just to make sure, the Magic screwed up a bunch of other stuff.

Okay, I have the advantage of sitting with Magic Johnson and Jon Barry, who played 27 years of basketball between them, for every game of the Finals. With 11 seconds left, as Orlando was breaking the huddle after a timeout, both were adamant that Orlando shouldn't press full court, that the Magic players should meet the Lakers at mid-court to make sure every Los Angeles player was in front of them where they could be seen and run off the three-point line since the Orlando lead was three points. Dennis Scott, the former Orlando shooter who now hosts a radio show in Atlanta, was sitting at home watching the game, thinking to himself it wasn't a good idea to pressure Kobe Bryant in the back court, that his old team should be standing at half court waiting on the Lakers.

But Van Gundy elected to get the ball out of Kobe's hands early. Jameer Nelson couldn't get from one side of the court to the other to close out on Fisher, who was 0 for 5 from three-point range in Game 5 but has a reservoir of confidence from all the three-pointers hit in 13 years in the NBA. Game tied, OT, game over, series over.

Okay, I'm jumping the gun on that last part, but the series is over. There comes a point in almost every series in which both teams know which is the best team. We're at that point, and it's painfully evident to Orlando.

As Turkoglu himself, clearly frustrated, said after the game, "We had it, but it just kind of slipped away because of our stupidness."

You don't hear that kind of candor every night at the arena. But you don't see a team give away a shot at a championship every night, either. And Orlando hasn't done this once, but twice in this series. The Magic should have won Game 2 in Los Angeles as well. Van Gundy swears this isn't about his team's lack of experience and resents the question even being asked, but that's what it is. The Lakers, through experience, including losing last year in the Finals to the Celtics, know how to finish these games, while his team doesn't, while his team fails to hit free throws and turns the ball over and doesn't adequately guard the three-point line after putting itself in perfect position to win.

It will haunt them all forever if they don't win a championship, which is such a difficult thing to do. You spend the time between games counting all the different ways Orlando seems to goof up, like having Nelson in the game for long stretches of fourth quarters instead of Rafer Alston. They play their brains out for 40-plus minutes, Van Gundy designs wonderful plays that put the Magic players in great position. Does anybody design better plays than Van Gundy has in these playoffs? Maybe Van Gundy is getting all that can be gotten out of a jump-shooting team whose star can dominate defensively but can't score a single basket from outside the paint.

Did you see that clip before the game of Howard making an underhanded toss about 50 feet that went straight into the basket? Howard can make that, but not a free throw with the game on the line? One made foul shot, not a 50-footer from the wonderfully engaging Howard, and this caravan would be guaranteed to move back to Los Angeles with the outcome in doubt after Sunday's Game 5. As is, the Magic are left to be haunted, maybe a little bit by their own stupidness, as Turkoglu said, but more so by just the very human mistakes and miscalculations that so narrowly separate winning from losing.

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