Orlando, Fla. Magic coach Stan Van Gundy tried to sleep. He closed his eyes, but his cluttered basketball brain, a cyclone of X’s and O’s, wouldn’t relax.
Game 4 of the NBA finals, the one Orlando fumbled away with atrocious free-throw shooting, a hideous third quarter and questionable late-game strategy, kept Van Gundy awake.
It may for many nights ahead.
With only a few hours to reflect on what went wrong Thursday night in Los Angeles’ 98-91 overtime victory against the Magic, Van Gundy, who elected not to have his team foul with a three-point lead in the final seconds of regulation, was asked if a night’s rest had brought him any clarity.
“The assumption of a night’s sleep is way off base,” he said on a conference call.
Leading 87-84 with 11.1 seconds to go, the Magic allowed Derek Fisher, L.A.’s Mr. Big and Bigger Shot, to dribble into the frontcourt and hit a game-tying three-pointer with 4.6 seconds left. Fisher, who would stick a fork in the Magic’s hopes — and perhaps their season — with another three-pointer in OT, made his shot over Orlando guard Jameer Nelson, who was slow to react to Fisher’s penetration.
During a timeout after Magic center Dwight Howard had bricked the two biggest free throws of his young career, Van Gundy had told his team, which went just 22-of-37 from the line, not to foul. Too much time left, Van Gundy thought. And not with Kobe Bryant around.
He didn’t want to risk more missed free throws, giving the Lakers more chances.
Van Gundy is sticking to his (van)guns.
“I’ve rethought it and rethought it and rethought it,” he said as the teams took a two-day break before Sunday’s Game 5. “It’s easy to say now, ’Do I wish we had fouled as opposed to giving that up?’ Yeah, but I still don’t think at 11 seconds to go in a game that we’re going to foul in that situation. I’ll put it this way: You always have regrets. Faced with the same situation again at 11 seconds, we still wouldn’t be telling them to foul.”
The Magic can’t afford to look back any longer. They’ve got a mountain to climb.
The Lakers, one win from their 15th title, are the 30th team in league history to take a 3-1 lead in the finals. The other 29 claimed the championship.
Still, Van Gundy feels his squad, which has twice taken the Lakers to overtime and carried Orlando’s fans on a stomach-churning, turn-twisting journey this season as wild as any ride at Disney World, is capable of a historic comeback.
“It’s not like we’re in a situation where we feel like we can’t play with the Lakers and don’t have a chance to win or anything else,” he said. “Our confidence level will be high. Our guys have demonstrated incredible resiliency all year. I would expect us to play extremely well on Sunday.”
Los Angeles is bracing for Orlando’s best shot.
This is the moment Bryant, seeking his fourth title, and the Lakers have been building toward. After losing to the Boston Celtics in last year’s finals, their focus since the season began has been solely on getting back to the top. Now, they are 48 minutes from redemption and another championship. They don’t intend to relax until it is theirs.
The mission is nearly accomplished. Nearly.
“You have to stay focused,” Bryant said after scoring 32 points in Game 4. “You have to hold on to your excitement and just prepare. Prepare, prepare, prepare and go get ready.”