Cohen: A Chronicle of the 1994-95 Season (Part 4)
By Josh Cohen
ORLANDO -- While extremely satisfying, the Orlando Magic’s abolition of the Chicago Bulls in the conference semifinals was just another stride to the franchise’s ultimate goal.
Though there were plenty of reasons to celebrate considering most critics didn’t expect the Magic to advance past MJ and the championship-proven Bulls, jubilation would only be temporary.
Now, rather than be the surreptitious underdogs, Orlando was the juggernaut with redemption on its platter and considerable expectations to fulfill.
One year earlier, the Magic were swept out of the First Round by another familiar foe, Reggie Miller, and the Indiana Pacers. It was only fitting, moreover, that Orlando and Indiana would clash in the Eastern Conference Finals in 1995.
Like the Magic, who had just completed an extraordinary series with the Bulls, the Pacers had just polished off a dramatic series win over the New York Knicks.
In a slugfest that featured an improbable late-game surge from Miller in Game 1 and an inconceivable Game 7 victory at Madison Square Garden, the Pacers stunned the favored Knicks to earn their own salvation from their defeat to New York in the 1994 conference finals.
While undeniably improved from the previous season – especially with the addition of the savvy Mark Jackson and a more experienced core that included Miller, Rik Smits and Dale and Antonio Davis (unrelated), the Pacers were considered mild underdogs to the Magic.
However, unlike Orlando’s two previous playoff matchups in the earlier rounds, the almighty Shaquille O’Neal finally had an adversary that could relate in size and the duo of Miller and Jackson was as formidable in the mid 90’s as any backcourt tandem in the NBA.
It was very apparent how essential home-court advantage was when the two East powers opened up their series at Orlando Arena.
After falling behind 20-3 to start Game 1, the Magic stormed back and strangled the startled Pacers for the remainder of the opener to cruise to a 1-0 series advantage.
Brimming with confidence, resilience and vigor, the Magic wouldn’t be denied in the late stages of Game 2. While Indiana seized some momentum late in the fourth quarter, it was more heroism from the always-reliable Nick Anderson that proved most significant when he drilled a critical 3-pointer to help Orlando secure a commanding 2-0 lead.
Infuriated and perturbed after two disappointing losses in Orlando, Indiana rebounded, as expected, in Game 3 at Market Square Arena behind fine performances from Miller (26 points) and Derrick McKey (22 points) to climb back into the series.
Throughout the 1995 NBA Playoffs, there had been several astonishing performances and finishes. From the unimaginable late-game comeback by the Rockets to eclipse the Jazz in a decisive Game 5 to Miller’s astounding eight points in 18 seconds in New York to Anderson’s memorable steal on Jordan, it was without doubt that 1995 was the year of hardwood miracles.
It got even more mind-blowing when Game 4 of the Orlando-Indiana series was over.
In one of the most frenzied finishes in NBA history, the two Eastern Conference elite squads wouldn’t surrender to the other.
O’Neal and Grant had fouled out and it was up to the shorthanded and undersized cast for Orlando to try and rebuff Indiana’s quest to even up the series.
An exciting back-and-forth affair evolved into something much more tumultuous and heart throbbing when Orlando’s Brian Shaw, who had just subbed into the game, buried a go-ahead 3-pointer with 13.9 seconds remaining.
Totally unfazed, Miller, who always had the reputation for hitting clutch shots, countered for the Pacers with his own triple with 5.2 ticks left as Indiana went ahead by two.
As if Shaw and Miller’s treys were unthinkable, the next bucket was even more head spinning.
Compactly defended by Haywoode Workman and with barely any separation to get off a legitimate shot, Penny Hardaway’s leaning fling from beyond the arc found the bottom of the net with 1.3 remaining to again give Orlando the lead.
While it was difficult to believe that there would be yet another twist in this already thrilling final 15 seconds, the sentiment during this timeout was that whoever gets the last shot would likely win the game.
It was in Indiana’s hands to turn a stirring finish into an historical one as Smits’ elbow jumper at the buzzer connected and the Pacers unbelievably prevailed in Game 4 to tie the series at 2-2.
Shock and fatigue seemed to be at the forefront of discussion prior to Game 5. Never in the franchise’s history had the Magic had to overcome such an exasperating defeat and it was generally unknown how they would handle the entire hullabaloo surrounding them.
Much was learned about this revitalized and resilient organization at the O-Arena in Game 5. O’Neal compiled 35 points and 13 rebounds and Anderson poured in 19 points as the Magic regained control of the series and again proved to the critics that they can recover from any daunting obstacles.
Perhaps saving some energy in case a Game 7 was necessary, Orlando didn’t come out with any liveliness in Game 6 in Indianapolis.
As a result, a decisive Game 7 was required and the stakes couldn’t have been higher.
For both teams, it was the opportunity to advance to the NBA Finals for the first time ever.
The rousing support from the Central Florida community was evident and the home-court edge in such a pivotal game was a momentous boost.
Noticeable enchanted by all the encouragement around them, the Magic came out in Game 7 and instantly showed how badly they wanted to be Eastern Conference champions.
It was a romp from the opening tipoff to the final buzzer and unlike their series clinchers in the two previous rounds, the Magic could start celebrating their inevitable trip to the NBA Finals during an earsplitting fourth quarter at Orlando Arena.
Fans were elated as all the hard work and determination from the Magic had paid off. Orlando was Eastern Conference champions with just one more street to cross.
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