Cohen: A Chronicle of the 2008-09 Season (Part 1)
By Josh Cohen
ORLANDO -- There was the Boston Celtics, who just months earlier completed an extraordinary title run behind their star-studded trio. There was the Cleveland Cavaliers, who were spearheaded by the emerging LeBron James. There was the Detroit Pistons, a nuisance to all other challengers in the East as a result of their insistent playoff success.
And then there was the Orlando Magic – alleged to be non-threatening despite their gradual climb in the conference.
Sure, they featured the imposing Dwight Howard. Yes, they had progressively added more and more pieces around their franchise center and they undeniably had a strategic mastermind at the helm.
But very few outside of Orlando truthfully considered the Magic a legitimate menace to the “favorites” in the East.
Somewhat dissatisfied after a five-game ousting by their perennial foes, the Pistons, in the previous year’s conference semifinals, the Magic envisioned deepened accomplishment for the 2008-09 season.
Provoked by the naysayers and inspired by the self-created ambitious goals, it didn’t take long for Orlando to amplify its confidence and beliefs.
In the first month of the season, the Magic went 13-4. But to the critics’ defense, they really didn’t play any significant competition. And after a thrashing to the Celtics in Boston on Dec. 1, Orlando learned the hard way where it stacked amongst the league’s elite.
Perhaps used as a source of motivation, that aggravating defeat led to a stupendous streak in the following weeks.
Orlando would prevail in 21 of its next 24 games, which included one of the most remarkable four-game stretches in franchise history.
It started on Jan. 11 with a convincing victory in San Antonio, followed by a record-setting performance in Sacramento in which Orlando buried 23 3-pointers and was capped by two dazzling wins and efforts in Los Angeles against the Lakers and in Denver vs. the Nuggets.
Throughout the season, it became evident that Howard had expanded his overall game, particularly on defense in which he was ultimately named the Defensive Player of the Year.
The Magic were also a lethal 3-point shooting squad, finishing only behind the Knicks for most triples made. Rashard Lewis was the league’s individual leader in that category and others, including Hedo Turkoglu, Jameer Nelson and Mickael Pietrus, were just as dependable from beyond the arc.
It was all going so well…until...
Fear struck the hearts and minds of all those in attendance at Amway Arena and those watching on television on that early February night.
It seemed like just another game on the schedule for the Magic. The Mavericks were in town and there was some celebrating around the area as Orlando learned it would send three All-Stars to Phoenix later that month, Howard, Lewis and Nelson.
But in the blink of an eye, everything seemed to shatter.
While attempting a steal on Dallas’ Erick Dampier, Nelson dislocated his shoulder and there was immediate panic that this injury could knock him out for a big portion of time.
The apprehension proved to not be an exaggeration as an MRI showed Nelson tore his right labrum and would likely miss the rest of the season.
Rather than accept the subtraction as an excuse to spiral backwards, however, the Magic got creative.
On Feb. 19, just a little over two weeks after the crushing injury to Nelson, Orlando swung a deal and acquired veteran point guard Rafer Alston from Houston as part of a three-team trade.
And it took almost no time for him to adjust to his new teammates and surroundings. The Magic marched forward and finished the season strong. Though behind the Cavs and Celtics in the final standings, Orlando went 59-23 and won its second consecutive division crown.
Matched up against the Philadelphia 76ers in the First Round of the playoffs, the Magic believed they had the right balance and mindset to surprise some folks.
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