Fisher's key threes punish Howard, Magic as Lakers take command

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As the second of his crucial pair of threes was spinning its way magnetically through the rim, the 34-year-old Fisher withdrew without a sound from the scene of his finishing stroke. His left wrist remained extended as if he wanted the moment to last; he backed away like a painter satisfied with the canvas. He looked across the floor to Kobe Bryant, with whom he joined the Lakers as rookies 13 years ago, and from whom he received the kick-out pass that Fisher caught and shot for the Lakers' 94-91 advantage with 31.3 seconds remaining in overtime, and all Fisher did was grin. Kobe and the other Lakers were running toward him Thursday and he answered them with a grandfatherly smile.

Fisher was to this 99-91 win in Game 4 of the NBA Finals (RECAP | BOX) what Robert Horry was to the Lakers' previous championships. He made the shots that not only exploited the pair of mistakes Dwight Howard made but also punished Howard in a most excruciating way.

The difference between Orlando and Los Angeles is as mighty as the Lakers' 3-1 lead in this series. With 11.1 seconds remaining in regulation and an 87-84 lead to protect for the Magic, Howard needed only to make one of his two free throws. He dribbled the ball, spun it in his hands, took deep breaths and missed them both. He made the easy shots look too difficult, and Fisher made the difficult shots look like he had made them more often than he can remember. Which after all these years is probably true.

"Here's my thing on experience,'' Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy said as he considered the loss. "It's a basketball game. These guys have played hundreds of them, thousands of them. Most of these guys have been in huge games. It's just too cliché that it's all about Finals experience, as if all of a sudden we're playing with 11-foot baskets and a smaller court or something like that. I don't buy it.''

Maybe he's right to say what he says about experience, because experience is more a symptom than it is the cause of his team's pain. The difference between the two teams has more to do with earning the trophy the Lakers are one win away from claiming. Fisher has earned the comfort and confidence he feels when making a shot like the equalizing three-pointer he made with 4.6 seconds remaining in regulation to send the game into overtime. Howard has yet to develop that confidence. It will come as he undoubtedly spends his summer practicing free throws endlessly in hope of overcoming this loss and turning future disappointments into celebrations.

The experience of this night alone won't do anything for him. He will have to earn the right to make those free throws.

Of course Howard didn't lose this game. All he did was fail to win it. The most impressive young center in basketball came up with big plays -- nine blocked shots and 21 rebounds to go with his 16 points -- that positioned his team to even the series in Game 4. He also missed eight of his 14 free throws and committed seven turnovers to help create the opportunities for Fisher at the ends of regulation and overtime.

"Nineteen turnovers to 8,'' said Van Gundy in detailing the negative differences between his team and the Lakers. "Free-throw shooting and poor execution down the stretch.''

When Howard missed those free throws at the end of regulation, he was underlining the errors of his team as a whole. Altogether Orlando missed 15 of 37 from the foul line. "There's no need to get down on myself,'' said Howard. "I think I did a lot of good things tonight. Just free throws weren't there -- not just for me but for everybody.''

In the final 4.6 seconds of regulation the Magic failed to convert a game-winning shot that Hedo Turkoglu wanted to take. But Mickael Pietrus didn't return Turkoglu's pass and missed a difficult fallaway jumper at the buzzer.

The Magic would limit Bryant to 32 points on 31 shots. Down the stretch of the fourth quarter he tried to take over but couldn't dominate, which in turn forced him to explore another side of his championship personality. His eight assists accounted for more than half of the Lakers' total and doubled the number of any player on either team. After Howard failed to convert either of those decisive free throws, Bryant surrendered himself as a decoy. From a double-team in the backcourt he passed ahead to Trevor Ariza, who found Fisher crosscourt on the right side in isolation against Jameer Nelson, who is listed at 6-feet but looks several inches shorter than 6-1 Fisher. Maybe the Magic would have been better served by a defender like 6-5 rookie Courtney Lee.

"We gave him so much space to shoot the ball,'' said Van Gundy of Fisher, who launched his OT-forcing three off the dribble. "We played him like we were trying to prevent the layup. We denied Bryant the ball, and then we just didn't play Derek Fisher, just didn't guard him.''

The ensuing tie in overtime was broken when Nelson arrived with 35 seconds remaining to double-team Bryant in the post. As Bryant wheeled to pass out to Fisher his elbow caught Nelson on the jaw, and Nelson was on the floor when the arena went quiet (but for a few hundred screaming Lakers fans) and the Lakers thundered by him on their way to congratulate Fisher.

Let it be remembered that the evening's star had missed all five of his less important threes. But it's the other two that fans of the Lakers will remember long after Fisher stops playing. "Just recognizing why I was missing the ones that I missed and continuing to understand that I'm capable,'' explained Fisher. "I have a responsibility to my team that if I'm going to be on the floor, then I have to make a difference. None of us can continue to expect that Kobe is going to save us.''

Should the Magic have fouled Fisher before he could attempt his game-tying three in regulation? "Yes, I regret it now, but only in retrospect,'' said Van Gundy, who worried that there was too much time remaining to give the Lakers points.

Orlando reached these Finals despite losing four playoff games on last-second shots. "This is the toughest one because it puts us down two games and on the brink of elimination,'' Van Gundy said. "The mood obviously was very somber. The emotions are very raw. I didn't say much of anything afterwards.''

Such is the yin and yang of silence: The one kind expressed wordlessly by Van Gundy in the lockerroom, and the other kind articulated by Fisher's telling grin, and the one could not exist without the other.