Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
The Atlanta Hawks were able to defeat the Orlando Magic by the score of 88-85 to take a commanding 3-1 series lead in the first round of the 2011 NBA Playoffs. The Hawks are one win away from ending the Magic’s season, and exacting revenge from last year’s sweep in the 2010 NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals. Four free-throws from Joe Johnson helped seal the deal for Atlanta, as they helped to stave off Orlando from coming back and stealing Game 4 on the road. With 10.5 seconds left in regulation and the Magic trailing by three points, the basketball was put in Hedo Turkoglu‘s hands but he was unable to deliver with a game-tying shot to extend the game into overtime. It was a scenario in which Orlando sorely missed Jason Richardson, given that he’s been able to come through in crunch-time situations time and again. The Hawks were led by a balanced attack, as four players scored in double-figures. Jamal Crawford finished with 25 points and six assists, continuing his onslaught in the series as Atlanta’s sixth man. Johnson had 20 points and nine rebounds. Al Horford chipped in with 14 points, 12 rebounds, and four assists, while Kirk Hinrich contributed with 14 points. Dwight Howard had another dominant game, finishing with 29 points, 17 rebounds, and two blocks but a lack of support from his teammates has been the Magic’s downfall. Gilbert Arenas redeemed himself after poor performances in Games 1 and 2, as well as a no-show in Game 3, by putting up 20 points and five rebounds, giving Orlando a much-needed boost on offense even though it was in vain.
This isn’t even about the Magic’s loss against the Hawks.
This isn’t even about this season.
This is about the rise and fall of Orlando.
It’s clear, now more than ever, that 2009 was the Magic’s best opportunity at winning a championship. In the postseason that year, everything lined up perfectly for Orlando and they took advantage until the very end. Turkoglu’s game-winning shot in Game 4 against the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round, arguably, bought the Magic another life in a series they were close to losing. And, of course, with Kevin Garnett injured for the Boston Celtics in the playoffs, Rashard Lewis was able to have a field day against Glen Davis and Brian Scalabrine. That matchup tipped the scales ever so slightly in Orlando’s favor and they were able to survive a grueling series that they would lose one year later with Garnett’s return. The Magic polished off a favorable road to the Finals by matching up perfectly against the Cleveland Cavaliers and winning the series in six games, despite a superhuman performance from LeBron James. Then the NBA Finals arrived with the Los Angeles Lakers en tow.
Even taking into account Jameer Nelson‘s injury or his premature return to the rotation, two plays defined Orlando’s postseason. If Courtney Lee is able to convert on a game-winning layup attempt in Game 2 and Derek Fisher misses his game-tying three-point attempt in Game 4, the Magic would have had a commanding 3-1 series lead against the Lakers with a chance to win the title at home in Game 5. It’s plays like those that alter history one way or the other.
Again, this isn’t even conjuring up the possibility of Nelson playing at full-strength for Orlando in the playoffs, especially against Los Angeles — a team he tortured during the regular season. Despite Nelson’s absence, the Magic could be staring at the Larry O’Brien trophy sitting somewhere in the practice facility at the Amway Center right now. But of course, Lee didn’t make his layup, Fisher did make his three-pointer, and Orlando is left with a bevy of ‘what if’ scenarios.
Also, those plays affected the Magic’s future because general manager Otis Smith, embolden by the Finals run and getting a thumbs up from ownership to spend, did everything he could to get the franchise back at that plateau. Instead of standing pat, especially if Orlando did win the title, Smith went all-in by acquiring Vince Carter and Ryan Anderson, re-signing Marcin Gortat, and signing Brandon Bass, Matt Barnes, and Jason Williams in free agency. Smith was lauded for his aggressiveness in the offseason and the Magic entered 2010 with a loaded roster out to claim their standing as champions. Didn’t happen, of course.
Although Orlando in 2010 was far more talented than their 2009 counterparts, they encountered a team that matched up perfectly with them — the Celtics — in the playoffs, and lost.
So here we are.
Smith, doing everything in his power to hit it big and return the Magic to their rightful standing as an elite team and championship contender, has done nothing more than dismantle a franchise.
As Howard has progressed as a player, becoming a transcendent force on both ends of the floor that everyone envisioned him of being, his supporting cast has gotten worse and there’s not much he can do. Smith gambled that Turkoglu, Richardson, and Arenas would be difference-makers, that Quentin Richardson and Chris Duhon would be contributors, that Orlando didn’t need a back-up center with Howard’s presence, and he lost with every roll of the dice he took. It’s fitting that the Hawks will likely be the ones to put one of the final nails in the coffin, because they represent how far the Magic have fallen in a year.
Last year, Orlando destroyed Atlanta in the postseason. But due to roster shuffling that has weakened the Magic considerably, they’re on the verge of losing to the Hawks in the first round of the playoffs. It’s a shame that head coach Stan Van Gundy is trying to do everything in his power to prevent the ship from sinking, but it might be too late.
Looking back on it now, two plays changed the course of history for Orlando and the end-game is nearly here.
Only a miracle can stop from the seemingly inevitable from occurring — Howard’s departure from the Magic and the final nail in the coffin.
There’s time to fix everything, but time is running out.