By John Schuhmann, NBA.com
Posted Jun 15 2009 9:38AM
ORLANDO -- Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy downplayed the importance of experience throughout the 2009 NBA Finals. These games are just like any other games, he said.
But his team wasn't able to back him up. They simply weren't ready to win it all. And maybe if they make it back here, he'll change his tune and tell us how important it was to get here the first time.
On Sunday, the Magic finished The Finals like they started it.
Bookending three games where they were on the same level as the Lakers, were two games where they just fell flat. In their 99-86 loss in Game 5, the Magic had no answer for a 16-0 Lakers run that turned the game around in the second quarter.
"I did not think we handled the frustration really well," Van Gundy said. "And that's what I think one mistake, one bad play in that stretch, kept leading to another."
The Magic committed four turnovers as they went scoreless for eight straight possessions in the middle of the second period, and their four-point lead quickly became a 12-point deficit.
They had come back from bigger halftime holes in the postseason than the 10 points they were down at the break on Sunday, but they just didn't have the spirit to come back this time. The game was lost with that second-quarter collapse.
"I think we still had a little energy, but we weren't mentally tough," Rafer Alston said.
It wasn't a matter of the Lakers wearing the Magic down after Orlando's quick start. It was if they stuck a needle in the Magic's balloon and let all the air out.
"Instead of being the team that played like we did all season, we kind of started to hold our heads down," Dwight Howard added. "And they went on from there."
In the end, the Lakers were the better team. But when the Magic look back at this series, they may be asking, "What if?"
"We have to look at the missed opportunities," Rafer Alston said. "You've got to look at that."
If all four losses were like Games 1 and 5, sure. Then the Magic could accept their fate a little easier. But when they look back at the 2009 NBA Finals, they'll probably remember Games 2 and 4 the most.
In Game 2, there was Courtney Lee's missed last-second layup. In Game 4, there were Dwight Howard's late missed free throws and their inability to foul Derek Fisher before he hit the game-tying 3-pointer. And of course, what hurt them most were the 39 turnovers combined in those two overtime losses.
Those mistakes and missed opportunities can be tough to swallow, especially when considering how well the Magic executed against the Cavs in the East finals.
Before Game 5, Van Gundy struggled to compare how his team had played against the Lakers with how well they played the round before. The Magic matched up very favorably with Cleveland, but not nearly as well with L.A.
"It's so hard to make those comparisons," Van Gundy said. "We're shooting a lower percentage and turning the ball over more. Is that us or is that them? That's almost impossible to know for sure. You could evaluate it either way."
Whether it had to do with the Lakers or not, the Magic just didn't execute as well in The Finals -- especially down the stretch. Against Cleveland, they were nearly perfect in the closing moments of games. Even in Game 2 of that series, they got three big buckets before LeBron James beat them at the buzzer.
In the Finals, they seemingly came up empty in every big moment. They never put together a complete game, and each of their key players, from Howard to Hedo Turkoglu to Rashard Lewis, struggled at times.
"They played better than us," Turkoglu said. "Simple as that. We had so many good opportunities and we just let it slip away."
So maybe the Magic should forget this series and keep the first 101 games at the front of their minds when they look back at the 2008-09 season. Not many expected them to make the conference finals, let alone beat the best team of the regular season to win the Eastern Conference.
They exceeded all expectations, showed great resiliency all season and gained some much-needed experience. Just two years ago, this was a team with a losing record.
And over the last nine months, Howard and his teammates grew up.
"We came a long way as a team, as a unit," he said.
Now, it's a matter of what they'll take away from the 2009 NBA Finals and what they'll gain from the experience. Some teams get to The Finals and never return. Some, like the Lakers that hoisted the Larry O'Brien trophy on Sunday, get back and take the next step.
Before that can happen though, there are questions. What to do with Turkoglu, who can opt out of the last year of his contract and become a free agent? Jameer Nelson will most certainly get his starting job back, but will Rafer Alston be shopped to find more scoring off the bench?
Alston says he wants to stay. "I'd love to come back, give Jameer that needed help, back him up and give us that one-two punch," he said. "Definitely this team has the players and personnel to get right back to this point."
In what may be an unprecedented act in this league, Howard and Nelson decided to stay on the court to witness the Lakers receiving their trophy after the rest of the Magic headed for the locker room.
"It should motivate us to want to get in the gym and want to get better," Howard said. "We were right there at our goal. Our goal was in reach."
A year from now, or maybe further, we may look back at Howard and Nelson's decision to watch L.A. celebrate as something the Magic needed to experience before they could finally reach that championship goal.
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