Thursday June 11th, 2009

ORLANDO -- Dwight Howard didn't need a college education to understand the statistical improbability his team would have faced had it collapsed during Tuesday's Game 3. "We didn't want to go down 3-0," the Magic center said Wednesday, "because that's basically impossible to come back from."

Howard is correct. No team in NBA history has climbed out of a 3-0 hole in a best-of-seven series. But even though Orlando tilted the odds slightly with its 108-104 win, history suggests the Magic have only a marginally better chance to win the series now that they trail 2-1. In the 24 years since the NBA switched to the 2-3-2 Finals format, only one of 12 teams has lost the first two games on the road and come back to win the series. And what did the 2006 Miami Heat do that the others couldn't?

They won their three consecutive home games.

That's what the Magic must do if they hope to win this series. They have to beat the Lakers Thursday night and then beat them again Sunday, because history suggests they have zero chance of winning twice in L.A., and the chances are they won't even win one. Of the 11 teams that dropped the first two on the road and ended up losing the series, only the '05 Pistons forced a Game 7.

The Heat of Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal were the only team to lay an egg on the road and come back and make an omelet at home. After beating the Mavericks three times in Miami, the Heat rode that momentum to a series-clinching win in Dallas. Those '05 Pistons probably would have won their series had Spurs forward Robert Horry not added to his Big Shot Rob legend by draining a three-pointer with 5.8 seconds remaining in overtime of Game 5. Without that shot, the Pistons would have swept the Palace portion of that series and probably would have closed out the Spurs in San Antonio.

Everyone else, from the 1986 Rockets to the '08 Lakers, lasted no longer than six games. Last year's Lakers won twice at Staples Center, but one year ago Friday, they gagged away a 24-point lead to lose Game 4. L.A. would win another game, but the Celtics effectively ended the series that night.

So why is it so difficult for a team to win three consecutive home games in the Finals? The level of competition plays a role. Any team good enough to reach the Finals isn't likely to get jangled by booing fans or a few calls that go the other way.

Time also is a factor. During the regular season, teams have a day in town, play the game and fly to the next city. Especially during the back end of a multi-city trip, teams can wear down. In the other playoff series, teams have to travel after games 4, 5 and 6. In the case of this series, the Lakers arrived in Orlando on Monday morning. They won't leave until next Monday morning. After all that time, they might be eligible to vote in the next Orlando mayoral race. By Game 5, they'll feel like Orlando residents.

Also, don't discount the relative indifference of NBA fan bases. No matter how much a team may tout its home crowd, these aren't exactly LSU football fans. They still need piped-in music, sound effects and an obnoxious P.A. announcer to tell them when to cheer.

Still, Lakers coach Phil Jackson would like to take a little steam out of Orlando's crowd, which did bring the noise Tuesday for the franchise's first Finals game in 14 years. "That home crowd and the ability to make mistakes and play a little freer gives them a confidence," Jackson said. "We have to take that back."

That confidence is especially dangerous with an opponent such as the Magic. Orlando relies on its streaky shooting, and the Lakers have every reason to worry that Tuesday's 62.5 percent shooting clinic was the beginning of another scorching streak. A hot-shooting team can defy the odds, even odds as daunting as the ones the Magic faced after going 0-for-L.A.

"This team can stay hot for weeks. ... They can get hot and stay hot," Lakers guard Kobe Bryant said. "When that happens, you're dealing with a monster."

Without that sort of monster, though, the magic likely won't be back in L.A for long, that is, if they get back at all.

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