LOS ANGELES – Some 19 years after they shocked the basketball world, won 41 games and came within a whisker of making the NBA playoffs, the Orlando Magic’s famed ``Heart and Hustle’’ team of 1999-2000 still ranks as one of the favorites that Doc Rivers has ever coached.
In fact, Rivers said in addition to still keeping in touch with players such as Darrell Armstrong, John Amaechi and Corey Maggette from that team, he often regales his Los Angeles Clippers squad with stories about the ``Heart and Hustle’’ Magic.
``This (Clippers) team is similar, but this team is a little more talented,’’ Rivers said. ``I’ve done this for a long time now, and that (99-00 Magic squad) has to be one or two of my favorite teams ever. I think what made that team so good was how close we were. I can’t tell you how many of those guys that I still talk to weekly. It was an unbelievable group.
Prior to that season, the Magic traded away Penny Hardaway, Horace Grant and scores of other veterans and set out to rebuild the roster around Rivers, a rookie head coach at the time. Despite dire expectations, that Magic team stayed in the playoff race all the way up to Game 81 before losing to the Milwaukee Bucks. Not to be outdone, they won in the final game of the season to finish at 41-41. That stirring season won Rivers the NBA Coach of the Year award.
``Before the year, Sports Illustrated had that ranking of the top 300 players and not one (Magic player) was on there,’’ Rivers recalled. ``Usually the coach has to put that on the bulletin board, but Darrell Armstrong had it in everybody’s locker. It’s easy for a team to carry that for one game, but they carried that slight for the entire season.
``It was one of the most fun years I’ve ever had – as a player or coach – with that group of guys,’’ Rivers added. ``That was a magical year for us.’’
POLISH HAMMER: Sunday’s game in Los Angeles was officially designated as ``Polish Heritage Day,’’ a fact that made former Magic center Marcin Gortat – now a member of the Los Angeles Clippers – beam with great pride. ``Today’s my day, so you know I’m going to bring it,’’ Gortat joked prior to tipoff.
Magic fans undoubtedly remember a time when Gortat was a raw, but gifted center who would ``bring it’’ every night while backing up superstar big man Dwight Howard. Magic head coach Steve Clifford, who was an assistant on the Magic teams that Gortat played for when he was first breaking into the NBA in 2007. The fact that Gortat fought though his humble beginnings and is still in the NBA 12 years later is a testament to his work ethic, talent and character, Clifford said.
``First of all, he’s an unbelievable worker and he was from the first day that we had him. He’s also very smart and naturally competitive,’’ Clifford said. ``So, it’s not surprising (he’s still playing).
``He had been drafted two years before he got to Orlando and our first experience with Marcin was in summer league. Back then, he was very thin – very athletic and very smart, but very thin,’’ Clifford added. ``I remember by the end of the week (of Summer League) and (then-Magic coach) Stan Van Gundy said, `If we can’t help this guy become a really good NBA player then we’re doing a poor job of coaching.’ He’s smart, tough and very athletic, so I don’t think any of us coaches nor his teammates would be surprised by the career that he has had.’’
WORST CASE SCENARIO: In some ways, a showdown against the scrappy Clippers presented a worst-case scenario for a Magic team that has struggled all season – and for much of the past seven years, actually – at getting to the free throw line.
Coming into Sunday, Orlando ranked last in the NBA in free throw attempts a game (18.4), while the Clippers came in ranked first in free throw attempts a night (29.3). Clifford has tried to coax the Magic into attacking the rim more, playing inside-out basketball and cutting hard off the ball as ways of helping his team get more free throw attempts.
Clifford said a key when facing teams like the Clippers who do a great job of getting to the free throw line is defending without fouling. Needless to say, devising a game plan to keep the Clippers off the foul line gave him fits leading up to the game.
``With the free throw game, our biggest weakness is their biggest strength,’’ Clifford said. ``We’ve got to be able to guard their four main guys without fouling.’’
UP NEXT: The Magic’s longest road trip of the season – six games spread over 11 nights – continues on Monday night when they play the much-improved Kings in Sacramento. The Kings whipped the Magic 107-99 on Oct. 30.
The Magic’s long, winding road trip started in Charlotte and then took them to Chicago and Minnesota before hitting Los Angeles. After playing in Sacramento on Monday, Orlando will next head to Utah to face the Jazz on Wednesday. It is the first time in the 30-year history of the franchise that the Magic have gone on a road trip where they have played games in all four U.S. time zones.
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