Monday May 11th, 2009

The look splashed across Rashard Lewis' face spoke volumes. Sunday night, with his team trailing by seven points with a little more than seven minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, the Magic's All-Star forward took a moment during a dead ball to exhort his teammates. He clapped and shouted -- at no one in particular -- as if he was imploring someone, anyone to step up.

Unfortunately for Orlando, no one did.

The lack of a crunch-time scorer has become a recurring problem for the Magic in the 2009 postseason. If you look at the list of recent NBA champions, they all share at least one common thread: a natural killer instinct and a player (or players) on the roster capable of acting on it. The Lakers had Kobe Bryant, the Spurs had Manu Ginobili and the Pistons had Chauncey Billups. The Celtics have two such players in Paul Pierce and Ray Allen.

The Magic? Who do they have?

They have Dwight Howard, an uncontainable force inside the paint but a liability from the free-throw line.

They have Hedo Turkoglu, the team's leading fourth-quarter scorer the last two seasons but a player who struggles to create his own shot.

They have Lewis, one of the NBA's best three-point shooters, who needs double teams on Howard and crisp ball rotation to be effective.

But they don't have any player capable of sparking a 26-point fourth-quarter comeback, as Pierce did in the 2002 Eastern Conference finals. They don't have anyone capable of making impossible shot after impossible shot, as Allen did during the Celtics' epic first-round series with Chicago this year. At least, not since All-Star point guard Jameer Nelson sustained a season-ending shoulder injury in February.

What the Magic do have is a young, talented core that needs to build a sizable advantage in the first three quarters in order to ensure a win in the fourth.

There's nothing wrong with that. Stan Van Gundy may have been described as the "master of panic" by a very large former player (as well as one current one), but how can a team that was 52-1 when leading with five minutes left in the fourth quarter have a coach who panics down the stretch? And if he does, where is the evidence that it has affected Orlando? The Magic's shooting guards have been maligned for inconsistent play, but, combined, Courtney Lee, J.J Redick and Mickael Pietrus have formed a solid offensive and defensive troika.

That doesn't hide the issue with the most teeth: Who, if anyone, will emerge as Orlando's fourth-quarter weapon? In those final seven minutes of Game 4, as Celtics coach Doc Rivers drew up play after play for Pierce and Allen, the Magic went to a scorer-by-committee approach. Lewis, Redick, Lee, Turkoglu and Anthony Johnson all took turns launching perimeter shots while Howard got in a few of his own underneath. Orlando scored just four points (on four free throws, by Howard and Lewis) in the final three minutes of the game and was unable to take advantage of a sluggish Boston offense.

Despite the crushing manner in which Orlando gave home-court advantage back to Boston, the Magic still may hold an edge in this series, with Boston showing more and more of the wear and tear that comes with a depleted roster and a grueling first-round series. But until the Magic find a go-to scorer, a player who can make the perimeter shot, create his own shot in the lane and knock down free throws (all at the same time), they will never be a championship contender.

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