Commentary

Van Gundy had alternate ending in mind

LeBron's buzzer-beating 3-pointer leaves Magic questioning last-play defense

Originally Published: May 23, 2009
By Chris Sheridan | ESPN.com

Dwight HowardAP Photo/David RichardLeBron's winner left the Magic mulling ways they could have defended him more effectively.

CLEVELAND -- Stan Van Gundy fell on his sword afterward, saying it was his mistake and nobody else's that allowed LeBron James to get off that game-winning shot.

Exactly what that mistake was the Magic coach wouldn't say, because he didn't want to give away any secrets in case he finds himself confronted with a similar situation sometime later in this postseason.

But despite what he claimed, Van Gundy was not the only one at fault. (Mickael Pietrus joined Van Gundy in taking some of the blame, and rightfully so, although he couldn't quite understand why he didn't get the assignment on LBJ at the end.)

Still, if ever there was one single second that could be broken down, commented upon with every superlative imaginable and replayed dozens upon dozens of ways, this was it: An inbounds play on which Mo Williams took the ball from the ref, asked him to announce his five-second count as loudly as possible, bided his time and hit James with a crisp pass at the 3-point line.

James turned, shot and sank the game-winning 3-pointer -- "The biggest shot I've hit in my career," he said -- to give the Cleveland Cavaliers a 96-95 victory over Orlando on Friday night, evening the Eastern Conference finals at one game apiece.

"We should have defended it differently," Van Gundy said. "It's crushing enough to lose as a coach, but when you're the guy who could have made the difference, it hurts a lot more."

Van Gundy knew exactly what play to expect, a backdoor lob to James breaking toward the basket, the same play the Cavs had gone to earlier this season in a similar last-second situation at Indiana. In the huddle with one second left after Hedo Turkoglu had put the Magic ahead by two with a clutch 13-footer, Van Gundy turned to Turkoglu and told him, "You've got LeBron."

It was an interesting choice of defensive assignments given how well Pietrus had defended James, containing him in the fourth quarter (James scored only four points in the final stanza before hitting the game winner) like few defenders ever had in an NBA playoff game.

[+] EnlargeStan Van Gundy
AP Photo/David RichardStan Van Gundy exhorted his team to a 23-point comeback, only to lose on a LeBron 3.

Van Gundy's reasoning:

"There's a couple of things there. LeBron's a very, very smart guy, and he knows everybody can get a little overeager there. OK? And Hedo's a guy who's still got size at 6-10, and he has a lot less chance of biting on a shot-fake there with a second to go. I thought he would play the possession solidly, and he did; he played it very, very well.

"Second-guess or not, the shot that we ended up giving, there was nobody going to get up and … you really think another guy was going to block that? I mean the shot was going to get off, so it wasn't a matter of the matchup, it was a matter of how we defended the play. So Hedo did as good a job as anybody can do, and I didn't do as good a job as any coach could do."

Again, Van Gundy wasn't specific on what he could have done, but we can take an educated guess, and part of that guess involves Pietrus, who blamed himself for chasing Sasha Pavlovic almost all the way to the midcourt line as Williams was still holding the ball.

Had Pietrus stopped chasing Pavlovic two steps earlier, Williams wouldn't have had a clear passing lane to get the ball to James. Pietrus would have been right in the way, not chasing a decoy who wasn't going to get off anything better than a 42-footer even if he had received the inbounds pass.

More likely, Van Gundy was second-guessing himself for not having two defenders assigned to James, since pretty much every single human on Earth and every alien within the nearest few galaxies knew who was going to get the ball.

"Option A was LeBron, Option B was LeBron, Option C was LeBron, and Option D was Big Game James -- and that's what I went with," Williams said.

"It took so long to get to the rim, I said like a 10-minute prayer while the ball was in the air. One thing about shots like that, we always talk about how our team has swag, we all operate with swag. But on a shot like that, you lose all your cool points," Williams said.

Said LeBron: "Honest answer, when I caught it and squared it looked great. In the air it looked like it was going in, but the breaks we'd been getting, there was a chance it wasn't going in. I just did not know, I didn't pray as much as Mo did, but it felt great. You know, I practice those types of things."

It did not go unnoticed on the Orlando end of the court how jubilant the Cavs were about the victory, which -- in a way -- was the slightest bit of a moral victory for the Magic.

They had come from way behind once again, this time erasing a 23-point deficit, and they had learned another lesson about sticking with and repeatedly going to what was working for them. On this night it often involved isolating Turkoglu or Lewis against whichever of them was being defended by Delonte West, exploiting their size advantage in that matchup. Also, their many variations of the pick-and-roll and the secondary pick-and-roll continued to confound the Cavs.

They didn't need to force-feed Dwight Howard, they didn't need to lean for offense on guards Rafer Alston or Courtney Lee, and they discovered that Pietrus -- after a season full of second-guessing whether the Frenchman was worthy of the offseason investment they made in him -- might just have a little more Bruce Bowen or Shane Battier in him than they previously realized.

"The way they were celebrating, it was good, man. They win and they celebrate, and it means we're in their heads. So it's all on us now, and how we play in front of our fans," Turkoglu said.

If we are all fortunate enough to get a repeat of this thriller, either in rainy central Florida over the long holiday weekend, or back here at The Q in Games 5 and/or 7, or at the Amway Arena in Game 6, maybe we'll see exactly what secret Van Gundy was holding back when he declared just before his exit: "I know damn well what I could have done on the play tonight."

Whatever that was, Van Gundy wasn't saying. But he has a plan for the next time (can we start calling him the Master of Planic?), and he certainly didn't sound like a coach who has any plans to be a front-row witness to another game winner by No. 23.

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