June is a crucial month in the NBA calendar.
If the annual NBA Finals TV promo is anything to go by, it’s the month when reputations are laid on the line, heroes rise, and dreams come true.
It’s the month when Michael Jordan switched hands while driving to the rim against the Los Angeles Lakers in 1991, the month when Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal connected on that pitch-perfect alley-oop against the Portland Trail Blazers in 2000, and the month LeBron James ended Cleveland’s curse of failing to win a championship in 2016.
Decade by decade, these are just some of the highlights that have occurred during my lifetime. Nostalgic NBA fans should definitely take a look at the full list though, as June truly has produced a ton of iconic moments.
But the one I’m writing about doesn’t even feature.
It probably should though, as it’s one of the greatest achievements in the history of the Orlando Magic, who, on this day in June 2009 – ten whole years ago – won an NBA Finals game for the first time in franchise history. For an expansion team making its second ever Finals appearance, that’s a pretty sizeable accomplishment (albeit one that looks less impressive in light of what the Toronto Raptors are doing right now).
Sadly, that win was the only one they logged in the series, as their opponents that year, the heavily-favoured Lakers, went on to win the title. In reality, though, the eventual outcome belies just how competitive a series this was at times, as the underdog Magic pushed the Lakers hard in two of the other four games. Beyond this, they were supposed to cede to the defending-champion Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, or give LeBron his Kobe-Finals matchup by losing in the penultimate round.
But they didn’t, as Bleacher Report recently observed (shout out to Magic Twitter for nailing the response too):
¯_(ツ)_/¯ oops. https://t.co/84tFxQLV6w
— Orlando Magic (@OrlandoMagic) May 30, 2019
And, there’s a reason for that, as Dwight Howard was dominant, the likes of Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu shot the lights out, and Orlando’s bench produced heroics on a nightly basis.
Not bad for a team that weren’t given much of a chance heading into the 2008-2009 campaign.
It’s not all that surprising that they were overlooked.
LeBron was just entering the early throes of his prime, the Celtics had just assembled their ‘big three’ to championship-winning effect, and the Lakers and San Antonio Spurs looked typically dominant out West. Plus, the group of players the Magic had assembled was unconventional to say the least.
This is something that Kevin Clark observes in his recently published Ringer article on the team. They deployed “a strategy that seemed novel at the time: surround big man Dwight Howard with four shooters, and devastate the opposition with spacing and shooting,” he writes. This is pretty standard stuff in the NBA today, but as he argues, “The story of the modern NBA can be told through a handful of people and teams—Don Nelson’s “Nellie Ball,” Mike D’Antoni’s “seven seconds or less” Phoenix Suns teams, and Daryl Morey’s Houston Rockets among them—but to omit the Magic from the league’s evolution during the past decade is to misunderstand their contribution to how basketball is played in 2019.”
Flattering as this may seem, the ‘inside-outside’ approach was developed to give Dwight Howard the space he needed to operate in the paint. He couldn’t shoot the ball, so most of his looks either came from post-ups, or in pick-and-roll plays, from which he was deadly. The threat of Howard backing in or rolling to the rim caused the defence to collapse, leaving Orlando’s shooters open on the perimeter, per the example below:
In this clip, as Howard slips his man, four of the five Sacramento Kings on the floor attempt to cut him off at the basket, leaving JJ Redick to knock down the wide-open three.
And this happened night after night, as teams were forced to choose between attempting to stop Howard at the rim, or sticking to the shooters. Invariably, they failed on both fronts. Like the Kings, who, in the game shown above, allowed the Magic to set a then NBA record for three point shooting by giving up 23 in a 139-107 loss.
This particular achievement certainly made people take notice of the team, but their hopes of causing an upset in the East took a hard blow when point guard and co-captain (remember when NBA teams had designated captains?) Jameer Nelson went down with a torn labrum in his right shoulder in early February. Convinced that they had a shot that year, the Magic went out and acquired Rafer Alston from the Houston Rockets in a three-team deal.
It proved a stroke of genius, as Alston was pretty much able to pick up where Nelson left off, even if he didn’t provide the same kind of shooting threat.
Locked in behind Howard, the team finished the regular season with a 59-23 record – third-best in the East and the franchise’s best record since 1995-96. This resulted in a first round playoff matchup against the Philadelphia 76ers, who actually led the series 2-1 until Hedo Turkoglu turned the tide in Game 4 with this gem of a three pointer:
The Magic went on to win the series, setting up a clash with the defending-champion Boston Celtics in the Conference Semifinals .
Speak to Celtics fans about this series and they’ll point to just one thing: Kevin Garnett was sidelined with a mysterious knee injury. Whether Boston would have beaten the Magic with him is one of the myriad NBA ‘what ifs’, but he didn’t play and was sorely missed in a Game 1 that the Magic took on the road 95-90. The teams then split games 2 and 3, before Boston won games 4 and 5 to take a commanding 3-2 series lead.
But the Magic weren’t done. They took Game 6, before blowing out the Celtics 101-82 in a dominant Game 7 that saw them shoot 13-of-21 from deep, while Hedo Turkoglu led the way with 25 points and 12 assists. As Jalen Rose observed in the video below, Van Gundy’s decision to put the ball in Turkoglu’s hands, utilising him as a point-forward, was key to the win and would serve the Magic well throughout the remainder of the postseason:
Dethroning the King
The series win pitted the Magic against the Cleveland Cavaliers, who finished the regular season with 66 wins. LeBron was named MVP that year and led the Cavs to two straight sweeps against the Detroit Pistons and Atlanta Hawks en route to their matchup with the Magic.
Coming off an eight-day break, Cleveland lost a thrilling Game 1 107-106 following a dominant 30-point, 13-rebound performance by Dwight Howard. The Cavs struck back in Game 2, winning another close affair 95-95 before the Magic jumped out to a 3-1 lead off the back of 116-114 overtime win that had a little bit of everything. The Cavs then pulled a game back, before the Magic won Game 6 at home behind an incredible 40-point, 14-rebound performance from Howard that brought the Eastern Conference crown back to Orlando.
Losing to the Lakers
The 2009 NBA Finals did deliver the Magic’s first ever win at that stage, as they took Game 3 108-104. What a lot of people forget though is that they actually had a chance to split the first two games, by winning Game 2 on the road. Rookie Courtney Lee should have finished off a breathtaking alley-oop off the inbounds with the game tied at 88-88 apiece:
Instead, he missed, the game went to OT and the Lakers held at home, taking an 0-2 lead to Orlando. But that’s not all, as the Magic should have won Game 3 as well. They were up three with 10 seconds left on the clock. Like Nick Anderson in 1995, Dwight Howard then went to the free throw line and missed both attempts, before Derek Fisher knocked down a clutch three at the other end to take another game to OT:
Clearly affected by the fact that the win had been torn from their grasp, the Magic went on to lose the game and the series, as the Lakers wrapped things up with relative ease. Playing underdog against the two best teams in the East, while trying to win three-straight series without home court advantage proved too much for them, and that Lakers team was pretty good too. They had Kobe, Pau Gasol, Fisher, and Lamar Odom, who honed in on Turkoglu in the Finals, limiting the contribution of the Magic’s X Factor, particularly when it came to creating for his teammates.
That summer, Turkoglu joined the Toronto Raptors in a high-profile sign-and-trade deal, before the Magic swapped Lee for Vince Carter. The veteran brought some much appreciated dazzle to the Amway Arena, but couldn’t help take the team back to the Finals, as they ended up losing to the Celtics in a feisty Conference Finals series that produced six games.
From there, the Magic began to fall apart. The rift between Howard and Van Gundy grew and grew, while General Manager Otis Smith made a series of increasingly ill-advised trades to try and appease the star. Those decisions left the roster in a bad place and eventually resulted in the ‘Dwightmare’ that put an end to the old regime.
Although the Magic picked up current centre Nikola Vučević in the Howard trade, the franchise has struggled ever since. The team did return to the postseason this year for the first time since Howard departed, but it’s still some way off returning to the dizzy heights it reached 10 years ago.
As for Howard, he’s never been quite the same player that he was with the Magic. Traded to the Lakers in 2012, he’s subsequently played for the Houston Rockets, the Atlanta Hawks, the Charlotte Hornets, and he’s currently in the middle of a two-year, approximately $11 million deal with the Washington Wizards. The former No. 1 overall pick is just a shadow of his former self, as the game has little use for big men incapable of spreading the floor nowadays.
Ten years on, it’s easy to forget just how good Howard was. In 2008-09 he averaged 20.6 points, 13.8 rebounds and 2.9 blocks while winning the Defensive Player of the Year award. With eight All-Star appearances, five All-NBA First Team appearances and numerous other accolades to his name, he still seems like a shoe-in for the Basketball Hall of Fame. And who knows? Magic fans might be able to forgive and forget by then too.
As for the achievements of the 2008-09 team, those will live long in the memory.
Feature photo – Keith Allison / Getty Images / Double Clutch illustration – Matthew Wellington