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Finals Flashback: Lakers-Magic series was closer than people remember

September 9, 2021, 1:30 PM ● Miguel Flores

In the 2009 NBA Finals, the Lakers beat the Magic in five games to claim the franchise’s 15th title and gain redemption after their 2008 loss.

The 2010 NBA Finals was one of the most-watched series of the last two decades. It featured the most storied rivalry in basketball with the Los Angeles Lakers avenging their 2008 finals loss to the Boston Celtics. But only a few fondly remember the finals series of the previous season.

The 2009 NBA Finals was Kobe Bryant’s first crowning moment. It can be argued that he truly became a Lakers great with their win over the Celtics the following year, but 2009 was Kobe's vindication – his first title without Shaquille O'Neal.

It was also an all-time moment for the Orlando Magic, a franchise that broke through in 2009 after suffering a stretch of mediocrity when Shaq left them in the mid-‘90s.

Background

The 2008-09 Lakers were all business, driven by the 2008 defeat, and dragged to greatness by Kobe. They finished with a 65-17 record (best in the West by 11 games) and had the third-best offensive rating and the sixth-best defensive rating — a mix of end-to-end brilliance shared by most NBA champions. 

Kobe was again flanked by Pau Gasol, who was acquired midseason in 2008, Lamar Odom, an emerging young duo of Trevor Ariza and Andrew Bynum, and veteran point guard Derek Fisher. This Lakers lineup was huge, literally. They started games with Andrew Bynum at center and even when they finished games with Gasol and Odom as the two nominal big men, not a lot of teams were able to match their physicality and skill. Combine that with a laser-focused Kobe and a deep bench, the Lakers took the best record in the regular season relatively unchallenged.

In the playoffs, the Lakers easily handled the Carlos Boozer-Deron Williams Utah Jazz in five games before escaping the plucky Houston Rockets in seven. They overcame the Denver Nuggets in six to reach the Finals. Aside from that second-round scare from the underdog Rockets, the Lakers pretty much dominated the Western Conference Playoffs.

Meanwhile, the Orlando Magic, led by Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard, finished the regular season third in the East with a 59-23 record. Howard was the anchor of the league’s top-rated defense and was the lifeblood of semi-revolutionary pick-and-roll heavy offense. 

The 2008-09 Magic killed opponents with a thousand tiny cuts of pick-and-roll brilliance, orchestrated by Turkish legend Hedo Turkoglu. The Magic also had plenty of contributions from Jameer Nelson, Rafer Alston, young sniper JJ Redick, French legend Mikael Pietrus, and rookie Courtney Lee. Sweet-shooting power forward Rashard Lewis never gets enough credit for his solid NBA career, but this Magic playoff run could not have happened without his sudden bursts of shooting.

The Magic ran through the Philadelphia 76ers in six games, before ending the Celtics with a rare Game 7 road win in Boston. They were huge underdogs against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals, but not even a legendary series from LeBron James (38.5 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 8.0 assists) could quell their postseason magic. Orlando shocked the world with a Game 1 win in Cleveland and never looked back, taking the series in six games.

Best games of the series

The biggest reason why the 2009 finals is barely mentioned is because it ended in five games. But a close look at two games, in particular, draws a picture of a much closer series than people remember.

After drubbing the Magic in Los Angeles in Game 1, Game 2 was a much closer affair for the Lakers. Orlando came out and dragged the Lakers into a grimy defensive struggle, leading by 12 at halftime. The Lakers slowly crawled back into the game, setting up a back-and-forth quarter heavy on great defense and tough shot-making. 

The Black Mamba faced off against the Turk Mamba on both ends of the court in the final minute. When Kobe made a big play, Hedo responded with his own clutch shot. 

Tied at 88 with less than 20 seconds to go, the Magic had a crack at the lead as they freed up Courtney Lee, who missed a point-black floater at the rim. The Lakers, of course, went to Kobe for the would-be final shot of the game, but he ended up getting blocked by Turkoglu. The Magic threatened to pull one more rabbit out of their hat with 0.4 seconds remaining, again springing Lee for an alley-oop but the rookie missed another close shot at the rim for the win. In overtime, Kobe and Pau Gasol became too much for the Magic to handle and the Lakers secured a 2-0 series lead.

After shooting 62.5 percent in Game 3 and winning the franchise’s first NBA Finals game, the Magic were hungry in Game 4. Powered by a dominant defensive performance from Howard, the Magic limited the Lakers to just 39 points while scoring 52 themselves in the first half. The Lakers, like Game 2, rallied behind Kobe in the second half and brought the series into another slobber-knocker of a fourth quarter.

The Magic, again, could have won the game easily in regulation. Up by three with 11 seconds on the game clock, Howard missed two free throws that would have put the game out of reach. On the next possession, the Lakers ran a diversion and found Derek Fisher for the game-tying triple. Later in overtime, Fisher again drove the dagger through Orlando's hearts with another triple that put the Lakers up for good.

In total, that's two layups and two free throws that, had the Magic made, could have given them a 3-1 series lead. Instead, the Lakers took the 3-1 lead and closed the series in Game 5. Either Game 2 or Game 4 would make a great re-watch as they featured both squads at their best and worst.


Most memorable moment

The Derek Fisher shot in overtime is, arguably, this series' signature moment. Fisher was one of the most beloved Lakers during that era and no one loved him more than Kobe. He did trust Fisher with taking two of the biggest shots of the series. If not for the turnaround jumper with 0.4 seconds left against the San Antonio Spurs in 2004, that 3-pointer against the Magic could have been Fisher’s most iconic moment.

For the series, Lee's missed layup will forever be a sliding doors moment for both squads. Could the Magic have pulled off an upset, tying the series at 1-1 with the next three games in Orlando? Would we remember Kobe getting blocked by Hedo Turkoglu more vividly had the Magic won Game 2?

X-Factor MVP

We already gave Derek Fisher enough flowers as the one who put the Lakers over the top in the 2009 finals. But Orlando's Rashard Lewis deserves some shine as well as this series' most dangerous shooter.

Following his stint with Ray Allen in Seattle, Lewis’ six-year, $120 million contract with the Magic was seen as an overpay. He met the criticism with his second All-Star selection and some truly epic shooting performances throughout the playoffs.

Lewis dropped 34 points in Game 2, 25 of which came in the first half. He followed that up with a 21-point outing in Game 3, scorching the Lakers for nine triples in that two-game span. While he was limited for the next two games, Lewis became the most dangerous shooter in the world for two games and that cannot go understated.

Aftermath

As mentioned earlier, the Lakers went on to have another spectacular season in 2010, beating Boston in the Finals for the franchise’s 16th title. They did trade Trevor Ariza for Ron Artest but the Lakers were still relatively intact for that title run. Kobe won his fifth championship and Phil Jackson his 11th. Both cemented their place as basketball immortals. While the Lakers never made the NBA Finals after that, Kobe continued to hold the franchise to championship-level standards until his final season.

The Magic, on the other hand, never quite reached the same level of success as Boston reemerged as the East's top team in the following season. Boston toppled them in six games in the conference finals, and they have not made it back to that round since. The Dwight Howard era crash-and-burned with one of the most notorious Pepsi product placements in history. Turkoglu became too old quickly, Lewis regressed due to injury, and the Magic made a couple of moves that didn’t make them any better.

Howard eventually got back at Laker fans when he got traded there in the 2012-13 season, took an injury-riddled Lakers squad to a first-round exit, before spurning Los Angeles for Houston in free agency. Howard wasn’t well-liked in Los Angeles until he came back in 2020 and helped the Lakers win their first title since 2010. He's back with the Lakers again after spending a season in Philadelphia. Talk about coming full circle.