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By HUBERT MIZELL
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 29, 2001
ORLANDO -- Pass the oxygen. Lose the brooms. Orlando is no Miami. Unlike the flickering Heat, the Magic faced its 0-2 playoff dilemma as hustlers, fighters and survivors.
It was one of those rare NBA Is FAN-tastic games, with dazzling Tracy McGrady and his Orlando underdogs amassing a fat second-half lead against sweep-hungry Milwaukee, then crumbling down the stretch before going into a passionate overtime and -- at last -- bagging some Bucks.
After the aging, overrated Heat was a three-and-out embarrassment, barbecued by the Charlotte Hornets, the other NBA team from Florida faced its deepening challenge against Milwaukee with different elements, a fierce attitude and a houseful of heroes.
McGrady was a 42-point spectacular, but Darrell Armstrong was easily as vital, playing with a painful groin injury and triggering Orlando's act. Needing even more, having lost 11 consecutive times to Milwaukee, the Magic got off-the-bench flashes from Pat Garrity and Dee Brown.
Orlando scored 77 points beyond halftime. A rocking, deafening arena was urging with heart. Patrons were fabulously entertained. Doc Rivers won his first post-season game as a coach.
"We came at Game 3 with huge heart," said Orlando's leader. "When you are down 0-2, attitudes can either go down, with a lot of give-up apparent, or you can get tougher, meaner and more determined. We rebounded better, shot better and departed happier."
Unlike the Heat, the Magic is a franchise on the artistic upswing. So young, so promising. Rivers can drift into thinking about next season, but Saturday night he was saying, "We're hoping there's a lot left in this series. Maybe the Bucks will now feel some pressure.
"What a game. What fun."
One fellow could only watch. Grant Hill has a 7-year, $93-million contract to play for the Magic. For the gentleman from Duke, it's been a lost season. At 28, he cracked an ankle, underwent surgery in January and hobbled through 3 1/2 months as America's highest-paid cheerleader.
Hill is a prodigious 6-foot-8 talent, but now the five-time NBA all-star's highest hope, after 82 consecutive games on the bench, is to resurface as Orlando's second best player.
He even accepts that.
Grant has watched as McGrady flourished into the most imposing Magic property since Shaquille O'Neal. Still a babe. Next month, McGrady turns 22. He too is 6-8, awash in an identical 7-year, $93-million deal, but the spindly kid from just down I-4 in Auburndale is clearly Orlando's top gun with firepower still on the rise.
"I think, next to Shaq, he's already the NBA's best," Hill said before Saturday night's game. "I can't wait until next season, getting a chance to play alongside Tracy, after watching him mature so quickly."
Three hours before tipoff, Rivers kept saying how good he felt about Magic chances of avoiding a 1-2-3 knockout. There were brief slits in his focus, allowing flashes of sunshine-to-be, Rivers mentally jumping ahead; thinking to next season.
It clearly tantalizes.
"I can't help but visualize Grant back on the floor, with what should be the best health of his NBA career," said the good Doc. "It's remarkable how far we've come this year, showing great resilience as Tracy was forced to carry the offensive load and Darrell played the final month or so with an excruciating injury."
This time of year, having played so many games, with playoff stamina a consideration, NBA coaches are prone to have easy practices. Rivers went the other way Friday.
"We have so many youngsters, this isn't like coaching the Bucks, Lakers, Jazz or Sixers. We lost twice in Milwaukee and a soft practice might send a message that we've surrendered.
"I ran their tails off. Heads were drooping early, but then it picked up. Intensity became so evident that we had to quit before somebody got hurt. Their minds were in it heading to Game 3."
Their arena would shake.
"Just now, we are beginning to truly recapture our fans," Rivers said. "Who can blame them for losing faith? Shaq departed, then there was an NBA lockout, followed by Penny (Hardaway) leaving the team. A lot of hits to take." Hill is solid, but McGrady spectacular. Grant has been a model citizen from the crib. Tracy had a spat of trouble in high school but his deportment has become exemplary.
As gifted as McGrady is, as rich as he is at 21, there are splashes of humility. Bounced out of school in Auburndale for sassing a teacher, Tracy finished 12th grade in North Carolina and leapfrogged college directly into pro basketball.
As Hill watched McGrady grow as an athlete, perhaps Tracy was seeing Grant's graceful tactics with real life. McGrady's 16-year-old half brother is going through a tough time. His mother is dying of cancer. Tracy has all but adopted the young man named Chance, giving him a home and and a still-youthful role model.
"Tracy is amazingly mature for 21," Rivers said, "and a smart, smart player who works both ends of the floor. He is our toughest defender as well as best scorer.
"Oh, yeah, some great times ahead."