Crunch-time heroics propel Magic to 3-1 series lead


To use a baseball analogy, Rafer Alston was the starting pitcher tonight, scoring 26 points in regulation and forcing the Cavs to adjust to his hot shooting hand. Rashard Lewis was the set-up man, scoring 10 fourth-quarter points and sinking a 3-pointer with 4.1 seconds left that ultimately forced the game into overtime. And the closer? None other than Dwight Howard, who bullied the Cavs on his way to 10 points in the overtime period. Count a win for Alston, a hold for Lewis and a save for Howard. Or something like that. All that matters is the Magic defeated the Cavs 116-114 and are headed back to Cleveland up 3-1. They’ve got three opportunities to seize one victory and head to their second NBA Finals in team history. Howard was magnificent, carrying the Magic in overtime and establishing himself as a go-to, crunch-time guy for the first time in his career (read my Daily Dime story on this subject here). And oh yeah, he sunk two pressure-packed free throws with 21 seconds left to seal the deal. “At the end of regulation our coach came to me and he said that I got to come to the ball,” Howard said. “And I think earlier in my career, probably earlier this season struggling from the free-throw line, I probably would’ve shied away from touching the ball toward the end of the game. But I just felt that if I stepped up to the free-throw line I can make it.” This was a fast-paced, exciting game. The crowd stood for most of the fourth quarter and overtime, something I’ve never seen at a Magic game — it was almost a college atmosphere. The Cavs led for most of the contest, benefitting from a 58-point first half in which they spread the scoring among eight players. But their early-game strategy went away as the stakes got higher. At the end of the third quarter, LeBron had 24 points and five assists. In the fourth quarter and OT, LeBron scored 20 points and dished out two assists while shooting 5-of-12 with seven turnovers. LeBron was held to 44 points on the night — yes, held — as the ball was in his hands on almost every single possession throughout the fourth quarter and overtime. A quick glance at the box score shows he had a pretty good game, shooting 44.8 percent and getting to the line 18 times. But really, this was probably his worst game of the series. He totaled a series-high eight turnovers and missed 16 shots. And the worst part — and this might not be totally LeBron’s fault — was that he couldn’t involve his teammates at the end of the game. The rest of the Cavaliers spent the fourth quarter and overtime watching LeBron, and their offense was completely stagnant. The Magic did a fantastic job of clogging the lane and making someone else beat them, yet LeBron tried to do it himself anyway. Not a good plan. Random thoughts: * Rashard Lewis said his go-ahead 3-pointer in the final seconds of regulation was the second-biggest shot of his career, only behind his game-winner in Game 1 of this series. Before this season, Lewis never made it past the Conference Semifinals, and he never played college ball, so these are the highest stakes Lewis has ever dealt with. You wouldn’t know, it though — Lewis has been cold-blooded, never wincing for a second. * Mickael Pietrus was bombs away, stroking 5-of-11 treys on his way to 17 points. He hit a dagger of a 3-pointer in overtime to give the Magic a two-possession lead. His emergence is a primary reason for the team’s sudden elevation of play. Pietrus has stolen back key minutes from Courtney Lee, and he’s been a factor on both offense and defense. * Rafer Alston looked like playground Skip tonight, scoring 26 points fueled by a red-hot third quarter in which he scored 15 points. And, in addition to his scoring, Alston made a key steal in the overtime period on a Cleveland transition play that was about to be two Cleveland points. * Can the Cavs fight back? I went into the Orlando locker room after the game — a rather joyous occasion tonight — while Woody went to the Cleveland locker room. From what I hear, it was a pretty unhappy camp over in the other locker room. I just hope Ben Wallace didn’t eat anybody.