ORLANDO, Fla. -- Judging by their scorching early shooting percentages, it seemed the Lakers and Magic had made some tacit agreement to avoid playing defense in Game 3 of the NBA Finals. So it must have shocked Lakers guard Kobe Bryant when Magic guard Mickael Pietrus reached in and stripped away the basketball with 30 seconds remaining and the fate of the series in the balance.
As Bryant dribbled between midcourt and the top of the key, Pietrus lunged and swatted the ball. After wrestling with Laker Pau Gasol and then Bryant, Pietrus emerged with the ball and sprinted toward the basket. Bryant had no choice but to foul. Pietrus drained both free throws. The shots sealed the Magic's 108-104 win and kept Orlando from facing an almost insurmountable deficit. No NBA team has dug itself out of a 3-0 hole in a best-of-seven series.
Orlando notched its first NBA Finals win in seven tries dating back to 1995. Pietrus, a French import who made the playoffs just once in five seasons with Golden State, didn't seem to mind the grand stage or the circumstances. "Obviously, the pressure doesn't bother him at all," Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said.
Now, the Magic will turn their attention to evening the series. Meanwhile, the Lakers will try to find a way to make Orlando reprise its shooting woes from Game 1, because a repeat of Tuesday's 62.5 percent shooting masterpiece could swing the momentum completely to the Magic's side.
Center Dwight Howard and forward Rashard Lewis led the Magic with 21 points each, while point guard Rafer Alston added 20. Pietrus scored 18 off the bench. Bryant led all scorers with 31, but he missed four consecutive field goals in the final 3:33. Gasol scored 23.
The Magic came out smoking and barely slowed. They shot 68.8 percent in the first quarter and followed that by making 13 of 16 second-quarter shots. Orlando set an NBA playoff record in the first half by making 75 percent of its shots. Afterward, Lakers coach Phil Jackson scoffed when a reporter asked about the Magic's rebounding edge. "What rebounds were they going to get?" Jackson asked.
After allowing Bryant to explode for 17 first-quarter points, Orlando contained the Lakers' star for the remainder of the night. Jackson tried to rest Bryant for the early portion of the fourth quarter to help him shake his funk, but Bryant couldn't find his stroke down the stretch. "They really started coming hard to him," Jackson said. "Howard was consistently coming at him, making it difficult. He never really got into rhythm again." Said: Bryant: "They threw the whole kitchen sink, man."
Bryant seemed frustrated with himself, especially the fact that he missed five of 10 free throws. "It's disappointing," he said. "I'm used to coming through in those situations."
Speaking of missed free throws, hopefully, Tuesday's result allowed Nick Anderson to sleep a little better. In 1995, Magic guard Anderson missed all four of his free throws in the final 11 seconds of the first NBA Finals game in franchise history. The missed free throws allowed Houston to steal a win, and the Rockets went on to sweep the Magic. The Finals losing streak had continued until Tuesday, when the hot-shooting Magic needed a defensive save from their sixth man against one of the game's all-time greats to erase their Finals curse.