Orlando Magic lost in 1995 because of their immaturity

Orlando Magic center Shaquille O'Neal dominated the 1995 Playoffs, becoming the champion who would dominate the league for a decade. (Photo by Allsport/Getty Images)
Orlando Magic center Shaquille O'Neal dominated the 1995 Playoffs, becoming the champion who would dominate the league for a decade. (Photo by Allsport/Getty Images) /

Nick Anderson’s free throws are a microcosm of the immaturity that cost the Orlando Magic the title in 1995. The team’s confidence was penetrated that day.

Nobody could possibly have known what was going to happen late in regulation.

The Orlando Arena was euphoric sensing the biggest win in Orlando Magic history. The young team had always faltered throughout its Playoff run, but the team was so talented it always pulled itself together.

The rallying cry, “Why not us, why not now?” never range truer. It was a statement of defiance.

Defiance toward the natural order of the NBA — the progression of teams from youth to contention. Defiance toward the defending champions standing on the other side of the court. Defiance toward age itself — a statement of not knowing what you don’t know and being too naive to care.

It was 25 years ago Sunday that Orlando played its first Finals game. The stage was set for their ascendance and they were the favorites to win the championship.

The Orlando Arena was dressed in its Finals best and the notoriously loud building was as raucous as it had ever been and ever would be. Every Magic fan perhaps did not understand how special this moment was — the whirlwind run to the Finals. The players may not have understood the moment and stage they were entering.

The Finals are a different animal. The lights and attention are different — just ask the 2009 team. And going up against a team that knows how to win — a team with the “heart of a champion,” so to speak — the task is even tougher.

What is amazing about the 1995 Magic was how their immaturity and youth displayed itself throughout the entire Finals run. But it was not until the Finals and the matchup with the Houston Rockets where that immaturity finally came to roost.

The Magic’s veneer of confidence and bravado got shattered in Game 1. And suddenly the team looked as young as they actually were.

Reliving the run to the Finals is thrilling and breathtaking. This is a team discovering itself and defying all odds to climb their way to the top.

The Finals itself? It is forgettable and not something Magic fans want to look back on. It was a forgettable and embarrassing sweep.

It was never the free throws that did the Magic in, although that might have been the final nail in that coffin. It was the team’s immaturity. They finally looked the part of the wide-eyed young team. And an opponent finally made them pay for it.

The untold finish to Game 1

Things could not have started off better for the Orlando Magic. All their confidence and poise built up throughout the first three rounds of the Playoffs were on display. They rode the surge of confidence and bravado to a 20-point lead, seemingly making every shot they put up.

The two teams were both strong 3-point shooting outfits for their time. They were due for an offensive slugfest.

But the Houston Rockets never wavered. They worked their way back into the game, trailing by 11 at halftime and then racing ahead by seven at the end of the fourth quarter.

Orlando always found a way to fight back. The team’s talent was so great. Horace Grant (15 points and 16 rebounds) did all the dirty work and the Magic had the lead down the stretch.

Magic fans know much of the rest. But a lot of it has been lost to history.

In the final minute, the Magic had every opportunity to finish Game 1 up by three points. Anfernee Hardaway drove the lane for a tough floater, missing it. But Horace Grant dug out the rebound and dished it back to the perimeter.

Brian Shaw and the Magic reset the offense, working it back to him for an open three. That too would miss. Anfernee Hardaway dug out the rebound and dished it back to the top, the shot clock now off. All the Magic had to do was hold on and make their free throws.

Every Magic fan likely forgets that first sequence — the two offensive rebounds and opportunities lost as the Magic looked on their way to victory. Every Magic fan remembers what happened next.

The ball found its way to Nick Anderson and he was fouled. The guard was a reliable 69.6-percent free-throw shooter in his career to that point and 75.5 percent in the Playoffs to that point. Orlando could count on him to make one, at least.

Nick Anderson had spent his entire postseason making big shots and big plays. He stole the ball from Michael Jordan in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. He hit the go-ahead basket as part of a 14-0 run in the clinching Game 6 of that series.

In Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Indiana Pacers, he drained a huge 3-pointer in the dying seconds, famously banging the Orlando Arena’s parquet floor in celebration.

Anderson was reliable. He was Mr. Magic after all. This was his moment, a moment he had risen to so many times.

Of course, history does not remember the big plays he made in the 1995 Playoffs — The Last Dance helped a little, but 45 is definitely not 23 — and how he was a strong scorer and reliable offensive player for a decade with the Magic. History remembers what happened when he stepped up to the line at the end of Game 1 in the Finals.

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Anderson missed the first free throw and came off the line beating his chest after short-arming the first attempt. He missed the second, the ball falling back to him to give him a second chance and two more free throws.

Fate was going to make this Anderson’s moment. But he missed the next one, this time long after the first two fell short. and the Houston Rockets knew the door was open for them once again.

Kenny Smith made them pay.

Still in a daze, the Magic did not take the delay of game penalty (or it was not given by the officials). Kenny Smith hit a 3-pointer after getting by Anfernee Hardaway and the game went to overtime.

The Orlando Magic never recovered

The veneer of confidence and bravado that made the 1995 Orlando Magic was broken.

Nick Anderson missed that fourth and final free throw and became something of a national laughingstock — just check the Free Throw Awareness Month Twitter account’s profile photo.

But it was not just the free throws that broke the Magic. The whole sequence of events — the Rockets coming back from that deficit, fighting back for the lead, all the offensive rebounds and the free throws — seemed to crush the young team’s spirits.

The final nail in the coffin came in overtime. Clyde Drexler got past Anfernee Hardaway, forcing Shaquille O’Neal to come help. Hakeem Olajuwon used his knuckle to tip in the miss with 0.3 seconds left and the Rockets had stole Game 1.

Shaquille O’Neal probably described it best in This Magic Moment. After losing Game 1, things just never felt right. The Rockets won Game 2 by 11 points. They won Game 3 by three points. The Magic were never really in Game 4, losing by 12, feeling and playing desperate at that point.

But the team had a lot to learn.

The Rockets did not need to learn these things. As the Magic built their lead, the Rockets stayed calm and poised. They stuck to their game plan. They never let emotions get a hold of them or change their game. They stayed even.

They took the Magic’s best punch and punched back. Leaving it to Orlando to display calm and poise.

Their comeback seemed inevitable against a sometimes erratic Magic team.

Orlando had blown plenty of leads throughout the Playoffs. They had made big plays for sure, but their play throughout the postseason was sometimes uneven.

Their talent overwhelmed teams though. O’Neal was coming into his own. He had monstrous games that led the team to victories. But he also had his struggles — O’Neal fouled out of Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals. So too did Hardaway.

The run was a whirlwind. The Magic came at teams so quickly and with so much fervor they could not stop the ball once it was rolling downhill.

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Not until the Rockets. They had the shooting and the big man in Olajuwon to counteract O’Neal. They had the poise to withstand everything the Magic could throw at them.

And that is when the mistakes started to come in. That is when the Magic started relying too much on 3-pointers and their defensive shortcomings became apparent.

When the confidence and feeling of invincibility dissipated following Game 1, the Magic trailing in a series for the first time and it solely on their own mistakes, the young team finally buckled under the pressure.

The Magic never learned their lessons

Orlando huddled on The Summit’s floor as confetti and fireworks went off and Houston celebrated the title. The young team felt like it would be back here and titles were in its future. That might have still been the case.

Most teams had to go through hard lessons before reaching the top. The narrative of the Magic being the “next” team was prevalent throughout the Finals broadcast. The Rockets were the defending champions and understood the stage in a way the Magic did not.

It is hard to know if the team would have learned those lessons going through another year of frustration, losing to the 72-10 Chicago Bulls after a 60-win season in 1996. The team broke up after that.

Would Orlando have been able to come back in 1997 with Shaquille O’Neal and Anfernee Hardaway and compete with a strong Bulls team? Would they have been able to pick off a tired and worn-down Bulls team in 1998?

The Magic’s youth was absolutely a threat to everything Jordan built. They would have been a clear successor and the next dynasty.

But things did not work out that way. As quickly as the Magic came together, they fell apart. The 1995 season was their one shot at a title. And it was clear they were not ready for the moment.

It would have been a different series had Orlando won Game 1. But Houston’s poise was present. The Rockets probably would have found a way. They had that extra edge — what Rudy Tomjanovich called after Game 4 the heart of a champion.

Houston would have come back from a Game 1 loss with the same poise the team used to win that first game. The Rockets very well could have won the series anyway. They probably would have.

Experience does matter. And the spotlight for the Magic became too bright in 1995 and continued to be too bright for a young team and young players still finding their way.

History has put Nick Anderson along on that free throw line 25 years ago. That was a singular moment that was really a team failure and a team frustration.

Orlando was not ready for the big moment. They needed one final lesson. One perhaps that only a champion could give them. One perhaps they never really learned together.

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Instead, the last image of the Magic is Nick Anderson at the free-throw line. All the opportunity for glory in the world, and coming up short four times and never truly recovering.