Tonight Orlando tries to send the series back to LA, and give themselves a chance to pull off an amazing comeback. You could be tempted to believe that they aren’t totally out of the series, since the could just as easily be up 3-1 with a chance to close out themselves tonight. What caused them to lose games 2 and 4 however, is the reason why they won’t be able to mount the comeback. The Magic just aren’t mentally ready to be NBA champions.
It’s a cliche in the NBA that you need to serve an apprenticeship, before you can be champions. Like everything else, there are exceptions to the rule. Magic’s Lakers and Bird’s Celtics won championships pretty much out of the gate and the Celtics last year went from bottom feeders to champs by picking up Garnett and Allen. But it is tough to deny the historical precedent of teams getting close, and losing to a veteran team once or twice before finally breaking through. The Bad Boys of Detroit had to get by Boston, then they served as foil to Jordan’s Bulls. The Shaq and Kobe Lakers were just demolished by the Jazz and Spurs in 3 consecutive years, before they put it all together. In Miami, Wade and Shaq lost a tough series to Detroit in 2005, before they overcame them and won it all in 2006.
What I think those teams had in common was the hadn’t had to overcome adversity together in the glare of the spotlight. In each instance they were competing against a team that had been there and knew what to expect. Skill level and ability are very important and without heaps of it no team can win a title. At the top level though, all teams have loads of talent. Something else has to be what puts you over the top. Mental toughness and belief in yourself and your team are it, and that only can be forged in the cauldron of competition. All players will say they trust their teammates and themselves in big moments, as they should; but they don’t really know until they are there.
The Magic have been in position to close out two games against LA, they’ve let slip away. Whether it mas missed layups, poor defensive choices,or bad free throw shooting, they have let big moments slip through their hands. Even worse than those mistakes, the Magic have seemed tentative in crunch time which has led to sloppy turnovers , poor defensive rebounding, and guys like Lewis looking scared to shoot at the end of games. Orlando has shown they have the ability to compete in this series, but the question now is what will their complete lack of mental toughness mean for their future. Will they be like the late 80′s Pistons and come back stronger for having had this experience or will they be more like the Barkley era Phoenix Suns and never make it back.
I doubt too many of the Magic players are huge hockey fans, but I think if they were they could take some solace in this years Stanley Cup playoffs. Pittsburgh was clearly a talented team last year, but were just not ready for a battle hardened team like the Red Wings in last years finals. This year when they made it back, they were a year older and a year wiser and knew they could play with Detroit. So when they went down 2-0, they didn’t fold and won 4 of the next 5 to hoist the cup. This Orlando team is still very young, Rafer Alston is the only major contributor older than 30. They have a great chance to be the dominant team in the East for a few years; unfortunately for them they won’t win it all this year. Now they have to decide how to come back from this.