Magic-Heat Rivalry Picking Up Steam

by John Denton

MIAMI – Could it possibly be that with one controversial vote in the NBA Slam Dunk Contest former NBA superstar Dwyane Wade did what nearly 31 seasons of basketball between the Orlando Magic and the Miami Heat could not do – create an actual rivalry between the two Sunshine State squads?

For more than three decades, the Magic and Heat have rarely been dominant at the same time, reducing the number of times when they played with high stakes on the line. When Orlando made runs to the NBA Finals in 1995 and 2009, the Heat were in between stints with star-stacked rosters. And when the Heat rode the play of Shaquille O’Neal and Wade to a championship in 2006 and later LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Wade to two more titles in 2012 and ’13, the Magic were mostly in rebuild mode.

Also, the Magic and Heat have mostly missed another in the playoffs as well, facing off just once in 1997 when the higher-seeded Heat barely overcame an offensive onslaught by Magic star guard Penny Hardaway in a tight five-game, first-round series.

However, the Sunshine State series might have finally got just the spark it needed last month when controversy struck the Slam Dunk Contest at NBA All-Star Weekend and key figures from the Magic and Heat were squarely involved. Despite opening the contest with a never-before-seen five straight perfect-score dunks, Orlando’s Aaron Gordon was edged out by Miami’s Derrick Jones Jr. in a decision that left much of the basketball world in shock.

The fact that Wade – who retired last spring following a lengthy NBA career spent mostly in South Florida and a player who recently had his number retired by the Heat following a three-day ceremony – gave his former Miami teammate one of the decisive scores in the event only added to the intrigue and drama. Orlando guard Evan Fournier somewhat came to Wade’s defense recently, saying that he ``did what he had to do,’’ and admitted that he would have voted for Gordon if he was on the panel because of their friendship as teammates.

But did Wade’s actions stoke an actual bad-blood, heated and hated rivalry between the Magic and Heat in the days, months and years ahead? While it certainly created a distinct bit of bitter feelings that seem to be bubbling just below the surface, only time will tell if any sort of actual rivalry plays out on the floor. A peek into the potential rivalry could come on Wednesday in Miami when the Magic (27-34) face the Heat (39-22) in the first meeting between the two teams since the controversial dunk contest.

``I mean, like, only reason people are still talking about (the Dunk Contest) is because people felt like Aaron got robbed,’’ said Magic guard Terrence Ross, who knows a thing or two about the event with him having won it in 2013. ``If everybody had felt like Derrick won it outright, then we’d have been past it already.’’

Center Meyers Leonard, who is in his first season in Miami, recently stoked the rivalry a bit when he vowed that the Heat ``run the state of Florida’’ following a couple of Miami defeats of Orlando. Also, Jones Jr. spoke up recently in defense of his dunk title while also coming down a bit on Gordon’s attempted dunk over 7-foot-5 center Tacko Fall on the final jam that produced the controversial vote from Wade and others on the judging panel.

``I knew (Gordon) jumping over Tacko was going to be something big because Tacko is arguably one of the biggest fan-favorite players in the league and I knew that was going to get the crowd (involved),’’ Jones Jr. recently told 5ReasonsSports. ``I told (Gordon), if he had cleared (Fall) without touching him, I’d have gave him the trophy even if they gave it to me. … But he landed on his neck and I can’t give you that. Y’all gave me a 47 for jumping over (6-9 Heat teammate) Bam (Adebayo) and y’all give him a 48 for jumping over Tacko and landing on his neck? That don’t make no sense to me.’’

Gordon is hoping to be in a position to dunk again on Wednesday after missing Orlando’s loss to Portland on Monday because of inflammation in his right knee. Gordon, who recently wrapped up the best 10-game stretch of his six-season NBA career, went through the Magic’s light practice on Tuesday and is hopeful that he’ll be back to help out Orlando’s sagging defense on Wednesday.

``Yeah, I feel a little bit better, but there’s still a little bit of swelling in my knee,’’ Gordon said on Tuesday. ``I’ve got ice on it now and we’re going to do some more treatments when we get to Miami. We’ve got some big games coming up, so I’ll be ready.’’

To his credit, Gordon has taken the high road in terms of the dunk controversy while mostly side-stepping any derogatory comments about being saddled with a second runner-up finish in four years. Whatever frustration he is feeling now, he hopes to take it out on the rival Heat come Wednesday night.

``It’s always fun to beat the Heat,’’ Gordon said playfully. ``Regardless of what happened before or after (the dunk contest), it’s always fun beating them. So, we’re going to come in and give it a good go.’’
Addressing whether or not the Magic-Heat series is a rivalry, Gordon said: ``Yeah, it’s a good one for us, a good matchup for us. It’s a fun game. It’s a good matchup.’’

Magic center Nikola Vucevic, who has had some of the best performances of his career against the Heat including the Jan. 31, 2012 night when he grabbed a Magic franchise record 29 rebounds, doesn’t buy that Orlando and Miami are rivals because their periods of greatness have rarely ever intersected. Whereas the Heat dominated the Magic in Vucevic’s first few seasons in Orlando, the series shifted in 2017-18 and 2018-19 when the Magic won six of those eight showdowns.

This season, however, Miami has a 2-1 upper hand by winning on Jan. 27 (113-92) in South Florida and in Orlando on Feb. 1 (102-89). Orlando not only beat the Heat 105-85 on Jan. 3, but it held Miami to a franchise-worst six points in the fourth quarter of that one-sided game.

Those kind of back-and-forth results – and not through contrived media comments or dunk controversies – are how rivalries are created, Vucevic said.

``A.G. definitely did get robbed, but that was in a dunk contest and that’s all fun,’’ Vucevic said. ``I just think (Meyers Leonard) said what he said in the moment, and I don’t really care about it.

``Last year, we won the series and went to the playoffs,’’ Vucevic added. ``This year, they’re better (record-wise). I don’t think it really matters whose state it is. It’s all about playing the game, trying to win the game and moving forward. I really don’t think (Leonard’s comments) have that much to do with it.’’

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.

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