ORLANDO, Fla. – Arms raised in triumph, Derek Fisher walked up the floor looking as if he had just landed the knockout punch.
He delivered two.
Fisher forced overtime with a three-pointer with 4.6 seconds left in regulation and then drilled another with 31.3 seconds to go in overtime as the Los Angeles Lakers outlasted the Orlando Magic 99-91 in Game 4 on Thursday night to open a 3-1 lead in the NBA finals.
Kobe Bryant is one win from an NBA title to call his own.
The Lakers are one victory from title No. 15 and redemption for last year’s loss to Boston.
Fisher got them there.
The 34-year-old known for a turnaround fling with 0.4 seconds left in a 2004 playoff game to beat San Antonio, called making the Magic disappear even better.
“It ranks right up there at the top,” he said. “You know, even greater than 0.4 because I feel like we’re as close as possible to what our end goal is.”
It was the first time since 1984, when Magic Johnson’s Lakers and Larry Bird’s Celtics hooked up, that two games in a finals have gone to overtime.
When the clock expired, Bryant, trying to win his first championship without Shaquille O’Neal, looked at Tiger Woods sitting courtside and wiped sweat from his brow in relief. Fisher, who has bailed out the Lakers in plenty of big games before, was hugged by every one of his teammates.
He had missed his first five threes and promised teammate Pau Gasol he wouldn’t miss again.
“He’s been there before,” Bryant said. “He has been there and done that.
“He just has supreme confidence and I think those shots at the end of the game are actually easier for him than the other ones.”
The Lakers, who improved to 7-0 following a loss in the post-season, can wrap up their first title since 2002 on Sunday night in Game 5.
Bryant finished with 32 points, eight assists and seven rebounds. Trevor Ariza and Gasol each had 16 for Los Angeles, which came back from a 12-point halftime deficit. Ariza had 13 of the Lakers’ 30 points in the third quarter.
Unless they can force a Game 6, the Magic will remember this as another finals game that got away.
Dwight Howard was magnificent everywhere but at the free-throw line. Orlando’s superman of a centre had 16 points, 21 rebounds and a finals-record nine blocks. But he made just six of 14 foul shots, and it was his two crucial misses with 11.1 seconds to go in regulation that doomed the Magic.
Orlando missed 15 free throws.
“I just missed them,” Howard said. “I’ve been working on my free throws. They just weren’t falling tonight.”
After Howard’s late misses, Fisher pulled up and without hesitating dropped a three-pointer over Orlando’s Jameer Nelson with 4.6 seconds left to tie it 87-87. The shot stunned the Magic’s maniacal crowd, which was hoping the home team could win its second straight finals game after dropping its first six.
“I just sensed that was the dagger,” Fisher said. “That was the one that would put us in a position to close out the game even though the game wasn’t over.”
In NBA finals history, only two players have made more threes than Fisher’s 40: Robert Horry (56) and Michael Jordan (42).
“It’s character,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. “We’ve always said the character has got to be in players if they are going to be great players. You just can’t draft it.”
Just as they did in Game 2, Orlando had one final try, and this time guard Courtney Lee, who misfired on a tougher-than-it-looked layup in that loss, wasn’t on the floor. The Magic inbounded the ball to Mickael Pietrus, but his long and contested jumper was off.
Bryant scored two quick baskets in the overtime, and Howard tied it when he split two free throws with 1:27 remaining.
On L.A.’s next trip, Ariza grabbed his own miss to get another 24 seconds and Fisher lined up and drilled his three-pointer from the top of the key to make it 94-91.
As he retreated down court and Orlando called a timeout, the Lakers bench stormed onto the court and surrounded the popular Fisher, who came back to the team after stints with Golden State and Utah.
The Lakers spent the first half in foul trouble, complaining to the officials and generally out of sorts. Ariza, who the Lakers acquired from the Magic in a 2007 trade, was given a technical for slamming the ball to the court and Jackson got one for shouting something from his seat on L.A.’s bench.
Appearing in their 30th finals, the Lakers acted more like first-time visitors to a city choked with tourists.
“Fakers!” yelled one Magic fan.
“Cry babies!” screamed another.
The Los Angeles players and coaching staff slowly left the floor at halftime facing a 12-point deficit and seemingly in trouble.
They came back a different team.
After going just 1-for-10 on three-pointers in the opening half, the Lakers made three straight threes – two by Ariza – to start the second half, and when Bynum made two free throws with 5:58 left in the quarter Los Angeles was up 55-54, its first lead since 8-7.
Odom dropped another three, Orlando’s J.J. Redick matched it and the Lakers forward made a layup to give Los Angeles a 63-61 lead.
On Orlando’s next possession, Howard grabbed a rebound just outside the lane that Bryant wanted more. Reaching in, he tore the ball from Superman’s powerful grip and then broke free from his Olympic teammate, who grabbed him around the waist.
Bryant, Fisher and the Lakers, shooting for redemption after losing to Boston in last year’s finals, wouldn’t be denied.
Comeback commandos in these playoffs, the Magic now must put together their biggest rally.
They’ve been rallying all spring. They twice trailed Philadelphia in the opening round before sending the 76ers off to summer camp. Then, they fell behind Boston 3-2 but stormed back and dethroned the defending champions in a Game 7 on the road.
Given little chance against Cleveland, they toppled King James in six games and wrecked the Kobe-LeBron dream finals.
They didn’t come close to matching their record 63 per cent shooting effort in Game 3 and now must beat the Lakers three straight to win it all.
“This is the toughest one because it puts us down two games and on the brink of elimination,” Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said.
Notes: Among the celebrities on hand: Woods, Dwyane Wade and Hulk Hogan. Hogan came up from behind and scared the unsuspecting Woods. … Bryant (707) passed Dennis Johnson (676) for 16th place on the finals scoring list. Next up is Bob Pettit (709).