The defiant Orlando Magic took the world by surprise a decade ago

With how far Dwight Howard has fallen, it is easy to forget just how dominant he was. (Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images)
With how far Dwight Howard has fallen, it is easy to forget just how dominant he was. (Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic surprised the league in 2009 when they upset the Cleveland Cavaliers to reach the NBA Finals. Their effect is still felt in the league.

It was a bit surreal.

The energy in the Amway Arena was euphoric. The broadcasters on TNT did not quite seem to believe the result of the game in front of them. NBA executives, probably already realizing their dream matchup was evaporating, were probably scrambling to figure out storylines for this unexpected championship series.

The Orlando Magic had done what no one thought they could do. Ten years ago (Thursday, actually), the Orlando Magic eliminated the Cleveland Cavaliers with a 103-90 romp in Game 6. The Magic secured their first trip to the finals in 14 years and capped off one of the wildest and most memorable playoff runs in Magic history.

There are not many of those in the annals of Magic history. The team has been to the second round just five times in the team’s history. There are precious few playoff moments to savor.

So many of them came in this series and in this playoff run in 2009.

The Game 6 win felt like a final act of defiance from a team nobody expected would make it this far, let alone win and make the trip to the Finals.

This team was not who anybody wanted to see in the Finals. They were a fun upstart and nothing more. A young team that had to wait their turn — or bow down to the ascending LeBron James rather than skip him in line.

This team, despite is fun-loving nature, was defiant. It proved so many narratives about the league wrong. And set the league on the path it is on today in so many ways.

Sports Illustrated asked before the playoffs began, with Dwight Howard gracing the cover, if the Magic’s big man was having “Too Much Fun.” This was not a team that looked like a championship-contending team.

Dwight Howard was the defensive behemoth who did not have a gruff visage but constantly wore a smile as he blocked a shot several rows deep. Stan Van Gundy was a cantankerous, boisterous coach that gave the team a level of seriousness and focus. They needed it with the other cast of characters.

Hedo Turkoglu could drive Stan Van Gundy mad one moment and save him the next with his shot-making and playmaking. He was one of the first of the new wave of big guards who were actually playing forward playing point guard.

Rashard Lewis and Jameer Nelson had their moments of levity, but they were the quiet professionals, doing whatever the team needed on the court and providing consistency with their approach. Mid-season acquisition Rafer Alston gave the team a needed edge.

With everything going on with the team, it was a perfect balance for a team. They all fit together so smoothly. It is true the team had three All-Stars in 2009 — Dwight Howard, Rashard Lewis and Jameer Nelson — but this was not a star-laden team.

In 2009, everything was a struggle.

Nelson went down with a torn labrum in February and missed the rest of the season — until a controversial and ill-fated return in the NBA Finals.

The team trailed 2-1 in its first-round series with the Philadelphia 76ers, needing a last-second shot from Hedo Turkoglu to even the series and turn the tide. The Orlando Magic trailed the Boston Celtics 3-2 in the second round, getting a 23-point, 22-rebound effort from Howard to close the game and force a Game 7.

It was quite possible that struggle that enabled the Magic to play at such a high level in the conference finals.

The Cavaliers swept through the first two rounds without much adversity. When they hit a team they had struggled with in the regular season and found themselves down in the series, they struggled to do more than hope James’ brilliance was enough (it almost was).

Throughout that Eastern Conference Finals series, advertisers and the league, in general, anticipated the potential for a Kobe Bryant and LeBron James series. In some ways, there is still regret that series never came to pass. The Magic, once again, a secret villain of the larger NBA narrative (see: Winning Time).

The team was defiant and revolutionary in so many ways that are still felt in today’s NBA.

It was more than just who they beat and their buoyant, jovial star. The team had a style of play nobody thought could win.

The strategy was simple but effective: get the ball inside to Howard and let the defense collapse around him to free up 3-point shooters. Or install Howard in pick and rolls and use his roll to sink the defense into the paint and free up shooters.

Before the analytics revolution truly overtook the league, the Magic were instilling its basic principles to devastating effect. The league did not know how to handle it and this team showed surprising toughness and defense to match it.

As much as anything, this Orlando squad proved a team could win with that style of play. They could win with a perimeter-based attack that relied heavily on 3-pointers. Howard was a big reason for that. He was a defensive force that even James had to respect on his drives.

Their influence is still felt in the NBA today. That team proved what Mike D’Antoni believed with his Seven Seconds or Less Phoenix Suns that a 3-point shooting team could win. There is a direct line through that team through the 2009 Magic to the Golden State Warriors creating their dynasty.

More from History

The Magic ultimately did not have enough to win in the NBA Finals.

The Los Angeles Lakers were able to swarm Howard in the post and use their length to get out to the perimeter. Trevor Ariza hit an unreal amount of 3-pointers and Lamar Odom neutralized a lot of the Magic’s size on the perimeter. The Lakers turned into a perfect matchup and without a healthy Nelson, the Magic could not take advantage of their weakness at point guard.

Defeating the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals was one of the crowning achievements in Magic history. It was a huge moment for the organization and the team and the league in a lot of ways.

A lot has happened in the 10 years since. The team reshaped itself in the offseason following the Finals run — becoming arguably better but failing under the weight of increased expectations.

Their relationship with their star in Howard soured and he dragged the franchise through the wringer before his eventual exit. Injuries eventually sapped him of his greatness and he has struggled to regain that level of play that changed the league defensively.

The Magic franchise went through the wilderness before returning to the playoffs for the first time in seven years this past year. They are still struggling to find an identity, returning to an assistant coach from that era to lead the way.

Orlando Magic must feel so close, yet so far from Finals teams. dark. Next

But a decade ago, the Magic were the story of the league. They were subverting expectations and changing the game. And left an indelible impact on the league and the organization.