ORLANDO, Fla. — Magic coach Stan Van Gundy tried to sleep. He closed his eyes, but his cluttered basketball brain, a cyclone of Xs and Os, 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 on Thursday night in Los Angeles’ 98-91 overtime win 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 overtime, made his shot over Orlando guard Jameer Nelson, who was slow to react to Fisher’s penetration.
During a timeout after Magic centre 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 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’re 48 minutes from redemption and another championship.
They don’t intend to relax until it’s theirs.
The mission is nearly accomplished.
“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.”
Coach Phil Jackson held a brief meeting with his players on Friday to remind them of the stakes. At it, he sensed emotions were soaring.
“They’re excited about the possibility of winning, and they’re thrilled to have won that game,” he said. “I told them there’s a chance tomorrow’s practice may be the last practice of the season.
“That’s also something that gets them pretty excited because practice for players is something that is, at this level of the game, having gone through hundreds or probably more than a hundred-some practices, they’re excited about not having to come to practice again.”
The Lakers have experienced both sides of the Game 5 coin.
In the 2000 finals, they held a 3-1 lead over the Indiana Pacers, who then drilled them 120-87 in Game 5. Last year, Los Angeles trailed Boston 3-1 in the finals but salvaged Game 5 at Staples Center before losing Game 6 on the road.
Jackson, who can pass Red Auerbach as the winningest coach in finals history with his 10th title, knows that any team good enough to make it this far is capable of winning three straight — regardless the odds.