Magic Mania: Then vs. Now
Rewind, fast-forward. Orlando is much the same.
Most people in Orlando can attribute their heart problems to the Magic. Seems like soon everyone will be walking through downtown Orlando with a defibrillator and an oxygen tank.
The Magic finished eight games this postseason with a final score differential of five points or less (seven of which were decided three points or less). Four buzzer-beaters cost them the game. And of course, there was LeBron “1-second” James. Can you say, heart attack? Everyone in Orlando flatlined for a moment after that shot in Game 2. I was at the official watch party, and all I can say is it looked like a bunch of zombies walking out of that bar.
“Hi, I’d like a room at the Heartbreak Hotel.”
But it wasn’t the first time (or the second, or the third) that Magic fans were checking their pulse during a game or walking away with their heads held low. Let’s take a trip down memory lane. Welcome to 1995.
Ahh, things were good these days. Stamps were 32 cents, the Dow closed above 5,000 for the year and DVDs made their first appearance. The year the glove didn’t fit so they had to acquit. The year Michael Jackson told us “You are not Alone,” Mariah Carey had a “Fantasy” and Seal got a “Kiss From a Rose.”
It was the year the Rockets swept the Magic in the NBA Finals.
It was their year. The underrated and “young” team was on its way to glory. They beat the Celtics, putting their fingerprint on the mystic Boston Garden, closing it out with a win. They took on the Bulls and they defeated the Pacers in seven games, which was arguably the best series in Magic franchise history.
They were Shaquille O’Neal, Penny Hardaway, Horace Grant, Nick Anderson and Dennis Scott.
They were Orlando’s only—and still are—franchise sports team, and they were bringing home a title. Driving Orlando’s streets during a game you were greeted with empty roads. “Go Magic” signs littered home and store windows. Men, women and children donned Magic jerseys and every now and then, you caught someone reppin’ the Horace Grant goggles. It was Magic Mania… and then they choked.
Nick Anderson missed four-straight clutch free throws and the series against Houston was lost forever; their fingers left without championship rings.
A year later, it all fell apart. Shaq wanted to be an actor, and, well, we all know how that turned out. So he took an extra $8 million from the Lakers and headed to L.A. And we all know how that turned out.
“If we would have stayed together, the Magic would have had a championship,” former Magic guard Darrell Armstrong said. “We had some talent on that team.”
It took the organization 14 years to recover after Shaq ripped the hearts out of Orlando fans, balled them up and slammed them into the hole he once dominated in a Magic jersey.
Fast forward to the year 2003. We went to war with Iraq. We elected the Terminator as the governor of California and we found Nemo. We also witnessed the Magic’s horrific 21-61 season where they went winless for 19-straight games and fired former Coach of the Year Doc Rivers.
The Magic took 10 wrong turns, missed the intersection, ran out of gas, blew a tire and stopped to ask for directions before they were able to come to their final destination: The 2004 Draft.
Known for their baffling decisions (letting Shaq walk) and questionable draft picks (Fran Vazquez), the Magic made moves that shook up their franchise. They chose high school prospect Dwight Howard over the seasoned Naismith college POY Emeka Okafor as the No. 1 pick. And their off-season pickups didn’t end there. They acquired Jameer Nelson from the Nuggets in a draft-night trade.
Near the end of June, they sent Tracy McGrady packing for Steve Francis, Cuttino Mobley and Kelvin Cato. OK, that was a bad example.
But they did pick up Hedo Turkoglu from free agency and traded for Tony Battie that year. A change was a-comin’. Otis Smith continued to build around their star center, dropping $118 million in a sign-and-trade for the versatile Rashard Lewis from Seattle.
Now, this team is right back where it was 14 years ago—at the cusp of an NBA championship title. If you feel a little deja vu coming over you, that’s OK.
“It’s like looking in the mirror,” Armstrong said. “Offensively, they’re both the same. The only thing our ‘95 team had an advantage of is we had a 6-7 Penny Hardaway who could post up as well and we knew he could give us stuff that Shaq could give us.
“But do they have a big guy like Shaq? Yes, they do. Do they have shooters on the perimeter? Yes, they do. We had the same thing this team has.”
It’s uncanny the resemblance the Magic of the present have to the Magic of the past:
|Points Per Game||110.9||101.0|
But it’s not only the numbers that stick out. How about the (lack of) national media attention? The beat down in Beantown? Being the only hope for the city of Orlando to get any sports respect other than Tiger Woods?
The rosters are almost identical. Big man down low (Then: Shaq; Now: Dwight), perimeter shooters (Then: Dennis Scott, Brian Shaw, Nick Anderson; Now: Turkoglu, Lewis, Mickael Pietrus), clutch players (Then: Hardaway, Anderson; Now: Turkoglu, Lewis).
More than anyone on the current team, Dwight is the most like his predecessor. The Defensive Player of the Year is the nucleus of the Magic team, just as Shaq was. Both centers carried their teams to a deep run into the Playoffs, but can Dwight take the Magic where Shaq was never able to take them?
At 22 in 1995, the Diesel had an almost complete offensive game, but Dwight, at 23, has the defensive game on lock.
“With Dwight, he blocks more and rebounds a lot better than Shaq. They’re two different players but both know the game,” Armstrong said. “I couldn’t give Shaq the edge at the same age as Dwight and I can’t give Dwight the edge.
By the numbers, however, Dwight takes the edge. Only a year older this season than Shaq was when he led the Magic to the Finals, Dwight leads the original Superman in blocks (231 to 192), rebounds (1093 to 901) and although both players are known to struggle at the free throw line, Dwight barely leads in that category as well (.594 to .533).
Shaq’s offensive prowess is evident, however, with his commanding 930 made field goals at .583 percent compared to Dwight’s 560 on .572 percent.
And Dwight, like many have already pointed out, is nowhere near his prime yet. He’s maturing with every year and under Pat Ewing’s watch is growing as an offensive player—he’s already got the hook shot down, almost. Even with his limited offensive arsenal, Dwight still averaged 20.6 points per game this season. Add a “go-to” move to get him two more field goals a game and a slightly improved free throw percentage and he can be averaging close to 26 ppg.
“If you look, they had more skilled players, we have more talent. They had guys that were very skilled in their positions… we have more talented guys,” Alston said.
Like the Magic of the past, this 2009 team has defeated the odds. It continued its trek to the playoffs after their premier starting point guard and team leader Jameer Nelson was sidelined with a torn labrum in his right shoulder. They sprung back as championship contenders after trading for Rafer Alston out of Houston. They beat the defending champions—on their home court—after coming back from a 3-2 series deficit. Oh yeah, and Boston had a 32-0 record when leading three games to two in a series.
Now, they are heading to Los Angeles to take on Kobe Bryant and the Lakers after sending the Cleveland LeBrons fishing and sending one of the Nike puppets to the storage closet.
“We have a bunch of winners in this locker room. We have a bunch of guys that people said can’t do it, couldn’t do it or don’t want it,” Nelson said. “One thing we understand is to win a game, to win a series you have to come together as a team and that’s what we’ve been doing.”
And doing it well. They were one second away from sweeping the team that swept both opponents on their playoff path to the finals before the Magic stood in front of them like Detroit did to Orlando in most of their past playoff appearances. The city of Orlando was turning off their respirators and taking their nose tubes out. They were being revived. They were breathing again. They believed again.
The Magic, although shaky at the beginning of the post season, overcame more obstacles than any team in these playoffs. They’ve hustled back from large leads, survived suspensions to two of their starters and they’ve closed out two teams on their home courts. That’s what’s different with this team: They will their way to win.
“The best thing they did was come back and took an 8-point lead in Game 5 that puts doubt in teams’ minds. They lost, but they still put doubt in Cleveland,” Armstrong said. “In Detroit (in 2003), we were up 3-1 and we laid enough eggs for everyone around the world to have for Easter. We went there and laid down.”
This team isn’t laying down anywhere. They’ve elbowed and slapped and fought their way to the Finals. They’re taking on the Big Boys and the officials and the national media and the critics. They don’t care if people disrespect them, because according to Rashard, they will respond by how they play on the court.
“I believe in my team and I believe that if we come out every night and play our brand of basketball, we can beat anybody,” Howard said.
Although most of the current Magic players were learning their multiplication tables the last time the Magic went to the Finals, they’re looking to take their franchise’s past accomplishments and add to them. They’re looking to write their own history.
They’re looking for a ring.
Nada Taha covers the Orlando Magic as the Web Content Director for the Florida News Network.