PHILADELPHIA -- Thaddeus Young started his drive to the basket and was thinking pass, only to alter his plans because he nearly lost the ball.
Instead of an assist or even worse, a turnover, Young made the biggest shot of his life.
Young's driving layup with 2 seconds left lifted Philadelphia to a 96-94 victory over the Orlando Magic on Friday night, giving the 76ers a surprising 2-1 lead in their Eastern Conference first-round series.
"It was the biggest shot ever for me," Young said. "It was a lucky shot. I'm glad I hit it. I'm glad the ball was in my hands."
Game 4 of the best-of-seven series is Sunday night at the Wachovia Center. The Sixers, who stumbled into the playoffs with six losses in their last seven games and a 41-41 record, are two wins away from their second playoff series victory since Allen Iverson led them to the NBA finals in 2001.
Dwight Howard had 36 points and 11 rebounds for the Magic, who won 59 games during the regular season. Andre Iguodala led the Sixers with 29 points, though he missed two free throws in the final minute. Andre Miller added 24 and Young had six.
"We were badly outplayed for 30 minutes," Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said. "We're lucky to even be in the situation we're in. They had no trouble scoring on us and other than Dwight, we didn't do much offensively."
Orlando, which blew 18-point leads in the first two games, nearly overcame a 17-point deficit in this one.
With the Magic down 94-91, Howard made one of two free throws with 31 seconds left. Following a timeout, Miller missed a driving layup and Rashard Lewis grabbed the rebound with 7.4 seconds left. Howard then was fouled at the other end, and he made both free throws to tie it at 94.
But Young took a pass near the baseline and drove hard to the basket. He nearly lost possession, held onto the ball, went around Howard and dropped in a left-handed shot to send the crowd into a frenzy.
"I was expecting a jump ball or something, but he just made the shot," Howard said. "It hurts."
Lewis' desperation heave at the end missed and the Magic suddenly found themselves in a tough spot in a series everyone expected them to win.
Instead, it's the Sixers who are finding ways to hit the big shots at the end. Iguodala drained a 22-foot jumper with 2.2 seconds remaining to lift the Sixers to a 100-98 victory in Game 1. Orlando held on for a 96-87 win in Game 2 after its big lead was cut to five points late in the fourth quarter.
"That was a great win for us," Sixers coach Tony DiLeo said. "They made their push and we kept our poise and kept battling and made some big plays down the stretch."
The Magic tied it at 86 on a 3-pointer by Lewis midway through the fourth, but didn't score over the next 3 1/2 minutes. Iguodala made a pair of free throws to put the Sixers ahead 88-86, then swished a jumper to make it 92-86 with 2:39 left before Howard ended Orlando's scoring drought with a put-back dunk.
The 76ers kept it close by missing seven of 11 free throws late in the game, including a pair by Iguodala with 41 seconds remaining.
Led by Iguodala, the Sixers started pulling away in the third quarter, only to let the Magic get back in it.
Iguodala nailed a 3-pointer from the corner just before the shot clock expired to start the third. After Miller hit a 3-pointer, Green made a 17-footer and Iguodala made another long jumper with the shot clock winding down. That gave the Sixers their biggest lead, 74-57, midway through the quarter.
But the Magic answered with a 17-2 run. Lewis hit a 3-pointer and Howard followed with a thunderous dunk. Mickael Pietrus drained consecutive 3s to cut it to 76-74.
It wasn't a sellout crowd in Philly, but the fans who came made plenty of noise and gave their Sixers a real home-court advantage against one of the NBA's best road teams. Wearing white giveaway playoff T-shirts, they rocked the building the way they used to in Iverson's glory days.
Courtney Lee, coming off a career-best, 24-point effort in Game 2, didn't score until 3:25 remained in the first half. The rookie finished with six.
Turkoglu, still slowed by a left ankle sprain, had 11 on 2-for-12 shooting. He struggled against Iguodala on the defensive end.
Orlando tied Cleveland and Boston for the second-best road record in the NBA this season at 27-14, just two games behind the Lakers. The Magic were better on the road than the Sixers were at home, 24-17.