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Friday, June 12, 2009
Crushed by loss? Time will tell for Magic

By Chris Sheridan
ESPN.com

Dwight Howard
Dwight Howard prepares to launch one of his two free throws that could have sealed Game 4.
ORLANDO, Fla. -- He sat alone at his locker, his back turned away from everyone, barely saying a word to anybody for 10 minutes, then 10 more, then another 10, and then a few more.

Finally, when the Orlando Magic locker room had been cleared of all but the final stragglers, Dwight Howard rose slowly from his chair, walked over to a large mirror covering almost an entire wall, and looked into it. Silently.

Back to his locker he went to retrieve his light yellow dress shirt before he doubled back to the mirror, walked to within inches of it, and stared himself in the face.

Whatever he was thinking, whatever he was saying to himself, he kept to himself.

"Gonna be able to come back from that?" he was asked ever so gingerly when he returned to his stall.

"Why not?" Howard said.

Well, that was a pretty tough loss, came the obvious answer.

"So what?" Howard replied. "Life is tough."

Yes it is, and if anyone ever needs to reference one of the toughest losses a team has ever absorbed in an NBA Finals, they can go back and have a look-see at this one -- the loss that seems almost destined to go down in the annals of the Orlando Magic's history as the night they blew their chance at winning the franchise's first championship.

You know those 14-year-old nightmares starring Nick Anderson in Game 1 of the 1995 Finals that everyone around here references? They'll pale now in comparison to this, a night that will go down as a multilayered collapse of epic proportions, a night when missed free throws by Howard, a mistaken strategy by Stan Van Gundy and a mistimed emotional blowup by Mickael Pietrus were only a few of the major and minor things that combined to all but shatter the Magic's hopes of defeating the Los Angeles Lakers for the 2009 NBA title.

"That one will haunt me forever," Van Gundy said of his decision not to instruct the Magic to intentionally foul the Lakers when they inbounded with 11 seconds left, trailing by three, and got one of two super-clutch 3-pointers from Derek Fisher in a 99-91 overtime victory Thursday night that dropped the Magic into a 3-1 hole.
Dwight Howard
Dwight Howard sends one of his two wayward free throws in the final seconds of regulation.
Van Gundy explained that he usually instructs his players to foul and prevent a game-tying three only when there are 6 or fewer seconds remaining in the game, and he felt his team was shooting so poorly from the free throw line (he was right about that!) that it would have been a mistake to put the Lakers on the line with a chance to pull within one.

It's hard to believe Van Gundy's decision was not influenced by what had happened just moments earlier, when Howard went to the line with a chance to make it a two-possession game but missed both free throws -- two of the eight misfires he had from the line on a night when his box-score superlatives (16 points, 21 rebounds, an NBA Finals-record nine blocked shots) were offset by the combined counterweight of his negatives (the eight misses from the line, along with seven of Orlando's 19 turnovers).

"I just missed them. I've been working on my free throws, they just weren't falling tonight … not just for me, but for everybody," Howard said. "We can't hang our heads. We still believe. There's no reason to have any doubts right now. We know the position we're in, but we're not going to stop fighting."

But whether they'll be able to fight on Sunday night with their best man-to-man defender is in considerable doubt.

And the blame for that falls entirely on the man who put himself at risk of being suspended for Game 5. Pietrus delivered a double-fisted, double-punch flagrant foul to Pau Gasol's lower back as Gasol put the cherry on top of this sundae with what should have been an uncontested dunk with 3.4 seconds remaining.

The NBA reviews all flagrant fouls, and Pietrus is at risk of having his upgraded to a flagrant foul 2, which carries an automatic one-game suspension.

"I wasn't trying to hurt him or anything like that. I wasn't trying to do anything crazy," Pietrus said. "Hopefully, they're going to let us compete. I've been in the NBA six years, and I never had any hard fouls, I never had any hard feelings about any players. It just happened."

Pietrus continued to plead his case in both French and English as Howard sat silently and mostly passively nearby, rolling his eyes and expressing disgust only when he overheard reporters asking Rafer Alston how he felt about being benched for the entire fourth quarter and overtime in favor of Jameer Nelson.

When Nelson finally came out of the trainer's room, he was especially hard on himself for not getting up closer defensively on Fisher before the game-tying 3 -- while also saying that his ears were still ringing from the elbow to the jaw he took from Kobe Bryant just before Fisher hit his second huge 3 with 31.3 seconds left in overtime to break a 91-91 tie.

That non-call against Kobe and another, when the Magic managed to get Bryant switched onto Howard for the final play of regulation but Bryant practically mugged Howard to keep him from breaking toward the basket, were two more of the myriad subchapters to the story of this incredible game -- episodes that prompted all manner of questions that Pietrus repeatedly answered with three words: "He's Kobe Bryant."

But this game was not so much about Bryant or even Fisher as it was about the Magic crumbling under the pressure and making all the crucial mistakes.

The Magic have been astoundingly resilient throughout these playoffs. But this loss seemed so much different, carrying so much quasi-finality with it that you had to wonder whether Howard even believed his own words when he said afterward: "We will believe until there are no more games to be played. We've been in some tough situations, but as a team we've always found a way to come back, and we've got to cherish this moment."

Yes, he actually said "cherish."

Does that sound like a phrase that should be coming out of the mouth of a young man who craves a championship? A man who shouldn't be able to stand the taste that this defeat should have left in his mouth?

Hard to figure.

But Howard must have seen something positive when he looked himself in the eye in front of that huge mirror, because although he appeared to be down, he definitely did not seem crushed. A man of deep faith, he carried himself afterward with an air of inner peace.

And if there is any hope for the Magic, maybe that is the key to it.

There is still more basketball to be played in this series, and Orlando's fate has still not yet been finalized.

Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Sheridan, click here.