Sports At Phila. Front Page News; Magic returns to Orlando in NBA finals
It's tough watching the NBA finals from five time zones removed. It requires dedication, a compliant body clock and, above all, ample coffee. I had to pass on going this year. Cover the World Twenty20 cricket instead, the editor said. "Go follow Scotland." Lost them somewhere in the crush at Oval tube station. If you spot them, do let me know.
So instead, the alarm is set for just before 2am. Just in time to switch on the TV to witness game three, bleary-eyed. What's this? Chris Evans's ex-missus is opening up about the enigma that is Kobe Bryant. "I don't know everything about him," she declares. Oops, I realise I've switched on Loose Women and she's got a mysterious new beau. Definitely time to flip channels over to Five.
There's a little girl singing the Star Spangled Banner. Gina Marie is the name, a tad off-tune but as cute as the proverbial apple pie. Apparently, so the on-screen caption informs us, "Orlando is 6–0 when she sings the national anthem." Just when you thought that statistical analysis had reached its limits, they come up with this.
Back to the Five studio where the tension is so high that our host, Mark Webster has had to remove his tie. "Webbo", as he is known by all and sundry, has been doing the NBA beat for years, ever since he was planted in the heart of some random inner-city neighbourhood every week when Channel 4 showed the league, baffling the locals with his cockney accent and gratuitous use of unfamiliar terms like "touchline".
Scoop Jackson was the Robin to his Batman then. On Five, it's Andre Alleyne, best known for once coaching the mighty Milton Keynes Lions. Lest you're wondering, that's a team, not a circus act. Although, sometimes, it's hard to tell the difference. They've got a well-practised shtick. Presenter throws out random observation. Dre chucks up words like "offence" and "defence". Unless Five has a change of heart, they're heading for a break-up at the end of the season. You fear Webbo will end up back on the streets. They've got a lot meaner, we hear, since he left.
Tip-off time at the Amway Arena. Is that Nick Anderson geeing up the crowd? Seriously. It's the first finals game in Orlando for 14 years and you want to be enthused by the guy who CHOKED two game-winning free throws that could have propelled the Shaq-led Magic to the title in 1995? Instead, they got swept by Houston and the Big Indifferent fled to the Lakers. If I was an Orlando diehard, I'd be booing Anderson right off the court. If this was Philly, he'd never have made it alive through the door.
The Orlanders have waited a long time to get another close-up view of the finals. Down 0–2 after the opening two games in Los Angeles, they must be wondering if history is repeating itself with the next dominant centre. Not that Dwight Howard is the next Shaq. At least, that's what Shaq keeps saying lately, displaying a lack of class that hints at a late-career inferiority complex. But the Magic need their playful pup to be the Big Dog in this series. Otherwise, they'll be disappearing off with their tails between their legs.
Unlike the opening two encounters, Howard is getting help here. Rafer Alston makes his first five shots. Hedo Turkoglu, far too passive to date, is assertive. Mickael Pietrus is providing assistance off the bench. Yet there's a simple reason why the Lakers are 31–27 ahead at the end of the first quarter: Kobe Bryant. "He was really good," states Phil Jackson.
Now, you can see how much Phil hates doing these interviews during the game. If it wasn't in the rules, you might see him being a bit less Zen when he gets called over for his tuppence worth. So you sense, when he's calling Bryant's 21-points, 8-for-15 stat-line "really good", he's just extracting the Michael. It's like Florentino Pérez hailing Real Madrid's signing of Kaka as "decent". The master of coaching, the master of understatement.
The commentary crew, admirably, aren't manufacturing any unnecessary hyperbole. I like the combo of Mike Breen, Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy. They mix wit and wisdom in a way that Clive Tyldesley can only dream of. Perhaps their restraint is because VG's brother, Stan, is coaching the Magic. But basketball doesn't lack action. All you want to hear on top is colour. When we learn that Howard's favourite movie is Finding Nemo, Jackson has the perfect anecdote. "This guy said to me in a meeting: 'Fish are Friends'." Really, who knew?
Swimming against the tide, Orlando keep pressing towards half-time. Alston's finger roll puts them ahead 49–48. Bryant pulls off an audacious pass across the key to find an open Pau Gasol. Level with one minute left, Rashard Lewis drains a three and then Dwight swats a Kobe shot into the expensive seats. Superman, he can sure fly. When Howard converts two foul-shots, it leaves the Magic up 59–54 at the interval and with the best 24-minute shooting percentage (75%) in finals history.
"We wanted to go out and be aggressive," declares Alston. "Our defence isn't bad," advises Stan. It ain't over yet, he drills home. The Lakers haven't played badly. In truth, SVG's team are surpassing themselves.
Jackson, having been through all this before, cuts a chilled figure on the Lakers' bench. It's been largely overlooked in recent days what this championship would mean to the Original Big Phil. While all the talk is of Kobe winning a title without Shaq, two more wins would give Jackson a record tenth ring as a coach, surpassing Red Auerbach and setting a mark that may never be matched. Yet to commit to returning next year, this may be his best opportunity to leave a legacy sans pareil.
Tiger Woods, sitting courtside, can identify with his mission. Orlando's only celebrity season-ticket holder, he can't quite match the A-list power of the Lakers' Hollywood following by himself. It's hard to imagine him trash-talking or getting all worked up at the officials like Jack Nicholson does. If only John Daly were an NBA fan.
Alston, the ultimate streetballer, can talk smack with the best of 'em but having been poor in his last two outings, he is a man possessed. "Skip" has 19 of his 20 by the end of the third as the hosts build an 81–75 cushion. Bryant has been quiet, the Magic emboldened. What's been the difference, Van Gundy is asked. "I don't have any idea," he declares, insightfully, "except the ball is going in the basket."
Down seven early in the fourth, Odom finally uses his size to spin inside and convert off the glass. With Howard taking a breather, the Magic turn to Marcin Gortat to man the paint. The giant from Lodz was playing in the German leagues two years ago. Now he's the first Pole to feature in the finals. He is, officially, the Totem Pole, if not the fulcrum.
That role is Howard's and while Bryant remains on the sidelines, the All-Star attempts to spark a decisively magical push. With 7:50 to go, he backs in to give his side their largest lead at 91–82. Kobe returns. Crunch time beckons. Get a stop and then a basket, Jackson urges. A 13–2 run, capped by a three from Derek Fisher, has the Magic on edge. They proved against Cleveland that they can keep their cool when the heat is on but consecutive sloppy turnovers are ominous. "Do we fear for Orlando at this stage?" asks Webbo. Yes, yes we do. The sight of Bryant drawing up plays with Gasol on a whiteboard on the bench hints at the Lakers' strategy. The one-two punch is coming.
Up 101–99 with two minutes to go, the Magic can only brace themselves for impact. In a town well-versed in rollercoaster rides, breathing is suspended. The crowd is on its feet, booing in unison when a foul is called on Howard for an apparently clear block on Bryant.
Karma or not, Kobe misses the first free throw. He bangs his head in frustration. Maybe too hard. In a daze, he allows Pietrus and Howard to force him into a late turnover that affords the Frenchman the opportunity to put Orlando 106–102 clear with 25 seconds left.
Ça suffit. Another pair of desperate duds from Bryant, who made only two of his last 12 attempts in a game-high haul of 31. The result: 108–104. The Magic finally have a finals victory. And we have ourselves a series again, with Orlando now looking to level at 2–2 when the sides reconvene tomorrow night.
"The one thing that you can't question in our team is our resilience in situations like that," said Van Gundy, whose side was paced by Howard's 21 points and 14 rebounds. "When the ball goes in, they look like really good shots. When they don't go in, they say 'wow, they're not getting good shots'. When the ball is going in 62% of the time, those are good shots." By going back to what served them well before, Stan has found chinks in LA's armour.
Webbo is ecstatic. "We're definitely here on Sunday as well," he pronounces. Somewhere, Little Gina – now seven times a lucky charm – is rehearsing her next chorus. Time to stock up on the coffee. Far from going down the tubes, these NBA finals have finally woken up.