With a 102-92 win, the Orlando Magic closed out the Toronto Raptors to win their first playoff series since 1996.
On the face of it, that’s only a somewhat remarkable statement. Most franchises have gone that long without winning a playoff series. It’s also not the case that the Magic have been terrible all those years; they made the playoffs six times in those 12 seasons. They even finished a just one game out of the playoffs in the Heart and Hustle caimpaign of 1999-00, which has to be the best rebuilding year ever.
It means an awful lot to the team and the city though. There are still hard feelings about the way Shaq left, and it didn’t seem fair to watch him collect ring after ring. The city and community also made a huge investment in the team this year by agreeing to build a new arena, despite Orlando being one of the hardest hit areas in the country by the real estate bust.
Everyone needed this. The Magic organization needed it to confirm its new direction and the investment in the new arena. Orlando needed it to give the community a rallying point in the midst of tough days. Dwight Howard needed this to solidify his standing among the new crop of stars in the league, as true validation comes in the postseason.
It no doubt felt good for Stan van Gundy, who was robbed of the chance of winning a title when Pat Riley forced him out of Miami. It’s only sweeter that the win happened on the same day that Riley once again resigning from coaching duties. Stan is a good man and an excellent coach, and he deserves this.
It is also fitting that the win came on the same day that Hedo Turkoglu was named the NBA’s most improved player. The story of his career so far has been one of unfulfilled promise, destined never to be bigger than the routine salary cap exception pickup that he was for Orlando. Something finally clicked this year, and he nearly capped it off with a triple double in the series clinching game.
The player that has benefited the most is perhaps Jameer Nelson. After the NBA changed its hand check rules a few years back, the league became more and more point guard-driven. There have been concerns that Nelson is not the long term answer for the Magic, and rightfully so with his tendency for over-dribbling and turning it over a few too many times.
Nelson had a superb series however, averaging just over 17 points and shooting over 50% from the field and from three. He keyed fourth quarter runs in multiple games, and the one game he was hampered by back spasms was the game that the Magic lost. Dwight Howard is undoubtedly the straw that stirs the Magic’s drink, but Nelson showed something this series. The Magic wouldn’t be close to the playoffs without Howard, but they would not have won the series without Nelson.
Speaking of Howard, what more can he do? He became the only the third player ever to average 22 points, 18 rebounds, and 3 blocks in a playoff series. The other two guys? Moses and Kareem.
Of course, blocks only became an official stat in the 1972-73 season, but surely one day he will be known as just “Dwight,” since all the greats go by just their first name. He will need to keep it up, though, as Toronto has the least physical frontcourt of any of the playoff teams. Howard has plenty of years left to make his name and build his legacy, but continued success this year will show that he’s ahead of schedule.
The Magic have now won the series that received the least attention of them all this postseason. More of the games were locked away on NBA TV than were not, and the prevailing wisdom was that the winner got the right to lose to Detroit in the second round. But with the way the Pistons have been playing as of late, is it really that unreasonable to think that Orlando couldn’t beat them too? As old as the Pistons are, a win by the Magic could signal a passing of the torch in the Eastern Conference.
Sure, the Magic aren’t a perfect team. They need a real power forward, and for that matter, a backup power forward while they’re at it. They still play a lot like a college team, with one good rebounder surrounded by three-point bombers. Overpaying Rashard Lewis handicaps them in free agency.
None of that matters at the moment. That’s offseason stuff.
Right now, the Magic are playoff winners, and it feels wonderful to be able to say that again.