The 2009 Orlando Magic’s greatest strength was overcoming adversity

Hedo Turkoglu's heroics in the first round gave the Orlando Magic the confidence to overcome adversity. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Hedo Turkoglu's heroics in the first round gave the Orlando Magic the confidence to overcome adversity. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images) /

The 2009 Orlando Magic hold a special place in team history as one of the most successful in franchise history. But they were hardly a team of destiny.

The 2009 Orlando Magic’s run almost did not happen. It nearly died in the crib.

The Orlando Magic lost a 20-point in lead at home in Game 1 only to see Andre Iguodala bury them into a 1-0 hole against the Philadephia 76ers.

The naysayers were already having their day. A team that relied so heavily on 3-point shooting could not win in the playoffs when it mattered. The team that finished second in the league 3-point field goal attempts per game could not possibly survive.

Things only got worse from there. In Game 3 against Philadelphia, the 76ers took a 2-1 series lead when Thaddeus Young snuck past the Magic’s vaunted defense and stole Game 3.

Things looked even direr for the 3-seed in the Eastern Conference in Game 4 until Hedo Turkoglu worked his ball to the right wing and rose over the defense for a game-winning 3-pointer and an 84-81 win. Orlando had somehow tied the series. The struggle to get out of the first round was frustrating and real.

As the Orlando Magic dominated Game 5 and then ended the series in Game 6, there was some trepidation over facing the defending champion Boston Celtics — even without Kevin Garnett.

Was this team ready for the pressure that was to come? Was this team ready to advance deeper into the playoffs? Would the second round in 2009 be a repeat of 2008 where the Orlando Magic failed to stand up to a championship-level Detroit Pistons team?

It is hard to remember now that in those days there were doubts about the Magic and their whole 3-point shooting experiment. There were doubts about Dwight Howard and his ability to lead a team deep into the playoffs. The famous Sports Illustrated cover asked him to get serious.

This team was not supposed to win. Teams that shot 3-pointers were not supposed to have grit. And, most importantly, they were not supposed to win.

No team of destiny

This was not a team of destiny. This was a team that faced struggle after struggle. Doubt after doubt.

They could have easily folded on several occasions. They could have been satisfied with another second-round appearance and prepared for their time to come in 2010.

The championship pressure had not grown yet. This was still a team playing with house money. And everyone was happy to go along for the ride.

The 2009 Magic endure not because they made the Finals. They certainly left a legacy by doing so, proving the new 3-point shooting style could win and win big in the NBA.

But they remain one of the most popular teams in Magic history because of the character it took to get there. It was no easy path. It was never a sure thing — even up 3-1 in the Eastern Conference Finals, LeBron James had one more salvo to throw at them.

The 2009 Magic endure because of the struggle it took to get there. The surprise of seeing the path open up to something greater. And the joy of going along for the ride with a group that seemed oblivious to the pressure.

The Magic would win.

They would take a big lead in Game 1 in Boston and hold on for a 95-90 win. They would fall behind 3-2 in the series only for Dwight Howard to score 23 points and 22 rebounds in Game 6 to force a decisive Game 7. Then the Magic would shut down the TD Garden for the year, ending the Celtics’ title defense 101-82.

Then the legend could really begin. The Magic had confidence and the matchup advantage over a vaunted Cleveland Cavaliers team. Six games later, Dennis Neumann was asking the world to show us the way to California.

Journey of discovery

The regular season is a journey of self-discovery. Teams establish their identity and the way they have to win. The playoffs are an entirely different animal. They test that identity in every way and teams either re-commit to it or fall apart.

Even in the regular season, the Magic had to figure out a way to play without All-Star Jameer Nelson and integrate a stopgap starter in Rafer Alston. That could not have worked out much better than it did. But in the time between Jameer Nelson’s injury and the trade to acquire Rafer Alston, the team’s season could have easily fallen apart.

The regular season saw the Magic win a second Southeast Division championship. It was confirmation of their success but no one took them seriously as a title contender. And that was certainly true after the struggle in the first round.

It was the struggle that pulled that team together though.

It was Rafer Alston slapping Eddie House in the third quarter of Game 1 as if to tell the entire Celtics team the Magic were not going to get pushed around. They were willing to fight back. It was Hedo Turkoglu staying loose and hitting big shots throughout the entire playoffs. Or Rashard Lewis staying even in every game as a consistent force of support from the outside.

It was J.J. Redick stepping up when Dwight Howard accidentally broke Courtney Lee‘s orbital bone during Game 5 of the first-round series. J.J. Redick, developed internally and having asked for a trade a year before, made the most of his chance averaging 6.3 points per game in that series against Celtics. But more importantly, he had the stamina and smarts to stick with Ray Allen throughout the series. Allen averaged 13.1 points per game and shot just 19 percent from three.

It was Stan Van Gundy pushing and driving the team. The so-called master of panic gave the team confidence at every turn. He made the impossible a reality in many ways too.

It was everyone and everything pulling together to find a way. It was even Courtney Lee and Jameer Nelson finding their way back just to be a part of this magical run. Everyone was trying to do their part.

They all endeared themselves to Magic fans for their grit and sacrifice. The team is remembered as much for its personality and the surprise as it is for reaching the Finals and coming close to the mountaintop.

Always an underdog

The team entered every series as a seeming underdog. Nobody expected anything of them. And they surprised everyone at every turn. Any time they wanted to bury the Magic, they rose from the dead.

This was despite some severe flaws that eventually did them in.

The Magic did not have a great finisher. They did not have that last piece to get over the top. They probably understood that as the moment and the stage finally got too big for them in the NBA Finals. The team was still incomplete. It would be hard to bottle up what worked so well again. The Magic need more assurance.

More from History

Howard missed big free throws and the Magic overthought their defense in the end. Game 4 was an utter collapse as the Magic’s poise finally did them in. They lived too dangerously on the edge. Orlando needed change to get to the top.

Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson, team captains to the end, sat on their bench watching the Los Angeles Lakers celebrate on their floor. They hoped to be back on that stage.

The Magic came close in 2010. There is no denying that. But the feeling was undoubtedly different. The team was weighed down by expectation. They rose up to it in a lot of ways. But then the pressure got high. The team faced failure and it did not have the same resolve as the year before.

That carefree focus the Magic had throughout 2009 and all the trials and hardships that the Magic faced was something nobody could recreate.

The 2009 team was far from a team of destiny. They were a team forged through adversity and difficulty. They were a team that had to find itself and find a way with the pressure at its highest.

Next. Orlando Magic should retire jerseys. dark

What made that Magic team so special was how they beat it all back and gave themselves the franchise’s best shot at a championship.