|ESPN.com: NBA Playoffs 2009||[Print without images]|
|Pietrus got it done on both ends of the court for the Magic in their Game 3 win.|
ORLANDO -- Surrounded by more than a dozen reporters and cameramen in his tiny sliver of the Orlando Magic locker room, Mickael Pietrus was trying his best to stay cool.
And from the neck down, he was fine.
Decked out in a white shirt with his name embroidered across the cuffs, trendy black slacks and stylish black loafers, he looked like the star he had just played like on the basketball court.
But his head couldn't handle the heat. With sweat pouring down the right side of his face like a waterfall, he was coming unglued.
"MP, you need a towel?" Rashard Lewis laughed, before tossing his teammate a much-needed white cloth that was quickly put to use.
Fortunately for the Magic, Pietrus was much cooler on the court than he was in the postgame clubhouse.
In a matchup with the earth's greatest closer, Kobe Bryant, Orlando's sixth man actually came out on top. Playing sticky defense on Bryant down the stretch, Pietrus helped hold the L.A. superstar to five fourth-quarter points on 2-of-6 shooting.
That by itself would've been plenty for coach Stan Van Gundy. But Pietrus provided a bonus, scoring 10 points in the fourth -- more fourth-quarter points than any other player -- to push the Magic to a 108-104 Game 3 victory that added some desired sizzle to these Finals.
But the soft-spoken Pietrus, who finished with 18 points on 7-of-11 shooting and added three steals, was not about to brag about his play against Kobe.
"I was just a lucky defender," he said humbly. "I take no credit. You can always give yourself credit, but Thursday, he's going to come out red-hot, so you can't be giving yourself too much credit.
"Kobe is tough, tough, tough, tough, tough," he added, before pausing for dramatic effect. "Tough! Tough! Tough!"
Refusing to provide Kobe with bulletin board material? Nice play. Almost as nice as the plays he made down the stretch Tuesday night.
First came the tip-dunk. With just over two minutes left and the game tied at 99, Hedo Turkoglu missed a 14-foot jumper. As the ball began its carom off the rim, you could feel the life leaving Amway Arena.
The raucous crowd was sensing the worst ... that the Magic -- who ended up shooting an unfathomable 62.5 percent for the game, including 75 percent in the first half -- were about to lose.
But in swooped Pietrus, flying above everyone in purple and gold (and white and blue, for that matter), catching the rock and slamming it through the hoop. It was Orlando's first basket in more than two minutes.
"We were struggling a little bit, didn't get a great look at the basket, and then he comes in and follows that up," Van Gundy said. "I thought that was maybe the biggest shot of the game."
Pietrus said he took a page from Dwight Howard's book.
"I was trying to show Dwight a little Superman dunk," he said with a smile. "I was trying to compete against him a little bit."
About two minutes later, the duo teamed up on what may have been the defensive play of the game. The Magic led 104-102 with about 30 seconds remaining, and everyone in the building, the state and the viewing audience knew the ball was going to Kobe.
"We could feel [that it was going to Kobe]," Pietrus said. "I was talking to Dwight, telling him, 'We've got to be ready for that because at the end of the fourth quarter, it's going to be all Kobe.'"
Sure enough, the Lakers put the ball in Bryant's hands and he dribbled up court while Pau Gasol began getting in place for a high pick-and-roll at the top of the key. The Magic played it perfectly, and the daring Bryant tried to split the double-team by Howard and Pietrus.
Howard slapped the ball away from Bryant, but into the hands of Gasol, who was on the floor. Gasol shoveled it to Bryant, who bobbled it and then fouled Pietrus as he scooped it up. Pietrus, just a 70 percent foul shooter in these playoffs, sank both free throws to pretty much seal the win.
Pietrus, who warmed up for his title-round meeting with Bryant by guarding LeBron James in the Eastern Conference finals, gained some inspiration from the arrival of his older brother, Florent Pietrus, who flew to Orlando on Monday from Valencia, Spain. Mickael's good friend, professional soccer player Claude Makelele, also flew in from Paris.
Florent, who at 28 is a year older than Mickael, plays professional basketball in Europe.
"My brother's never gotten the chance to play in the NBA," Pietrus said. "So I'm trying to win this for my brother. He'll be so happy if I win a ring in the NBA."
Pietrus said he and his brother grew so close because their mother, Coco Claudine, died when Mickael was 9 years old and Florent was 10. Raised by their grandmother on the French Caribbean Island of Guadeloupe, they faced real pressure in everyday life.
Perhaps that's why the pressure of the postseason hasn't flustered Pietrus, who has played admirable defense against the world's two best players and nailed dagger buckets to boot.
"He's obviously not fazed by this," Van Gundy said. "And I think that's a great thing."
Now if he can just handle the heat of the postgame interviews.
Chris Broussard is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine.