1996-97 Season

1996-97: Magic Shows Heart Amidst Mayhem
They lost Shaquille O'Neal to free agency and several players to injuries and endured the turmoil of a midseason coaching change. But nevertheless, the Orlando Magic finished 45-37 and came within a game of upsetting the Miami Heat in the first round of the 1997 NBA Playoffs.

Miami won the first two games of the best-of-5 series by a total of 52 points and bolted to a 20-point lead during the first quarter of Game 3, enough to shake the confidence of the most ardent Magic supporter. Enter Penny Hardaway. Now the team's undisputed leader, Penny brought Orlando back with a 42-point effort in Game 3 and 41 points in Game 4 to set up a decisive fifth game. In so doing, Hardaway became the first player to have back-to-back 40-point playoff games against a Pat Riley-coached team. The versatile point guard added 33 points in Game 5, but it wasn't enough as Miami came away with an 91-83 win.

Darrell Armstrong, seldom used during the regular season, was the surprise catalyst during the postseason comeback. The 5-11 Armstrong symbolized the fight and determination that the Magic showed all season, sparking the team at the point and allowing Hardaway to swing over to the two guard spot and focus on scoring, which he did so well.

The season began on a high note with the acquisition of center Rony Seikaly, a capable NBA veteran, to at least partially fill the void created by the loss of O'Neal. Seikaly averaged 17.3 ppg and 9.5 rpg and assumed offensive leadership of the team when Hardaway was lost to injury early in the season. Hardaway's knee was one of many ailments that sidelined Magic starters for 80 games.

When the Magic lost five straight games after the All-Star break to fall to 24-25, the team replaced coach Brian Hill with assistant Richie Adubato, who led the Magic to a 21-12 record the rest of the way. Hardaway led the way with 20.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg and 5.6 apg, while Horace Grant added 12.6 ppg and 9.0 rpg. Grant missed the playoffs with a wrist injury, giving the Magic another obstacle to overcome against the Heat. And with Hardaway and Armstrong leading the way, they came closer than anyone thought possible to doing just that.