With a healthy Grant Hill, Orlando plans to contend.
By DARRELL FRY
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 3, 2001
ORLANDO -- When the end came Tuesday night, there were as many smiles as frowns in the Magic locker room.
The scoreboard at TD Waterhouse Centre, the one that read 112-104 in favor of Milwaukee, spelled the end to Orlando's post-season. But the Magic, disappointed by another first-round playoff exit, couldn't help but focus on another score, one that adds up this way: Tracy McGrady plus a healthy Grant Hill equals Eastern Conference contender.
"I think everyone's expectations are pretty high when you think about next year," McGrady said after the Bucks eliminated his team from the playoffs 3-1 in the best-of-five series. "I think people are going to expect us to win the East with Grant coming back. But hopefully we can get some other guys in here (through trades or free agency) that can help us out."
The winning was supposed to happen this year, but the Magic's grand plans were destroyed early when the newly acquired Hill, a perennial All-Star, went down after four games with an ankle injury that hadn't healed properly during the off-season.
After that, Orlando was essentially biding its time, making the most of a season that was lost before it really got started. It improved four games over last season's 41-41 record, good enough for seventh seed in the playoffs.
Despite entering the post-season on a nine-game losing streak against Milwaukee, the Magic played the Bucks tough, extending the series to four games and leading by 16 early in Game 4. It was Orlando's third straight first-round playoff exit, but considering the circumstances, nobody on the Magic was terribly discouraged.
In fact, coach Doc Rivers praised his team's fortitude in the series-ending loss, saying it typified the Magic's grit and determination throughout the regular season.
"There were a lot of times this season where the guys could've chosen to fold," Rivers said. "They could've used the excuses of Grant's hurt, T-Mac is 21 (years old), (rookie forward) Mike Miller is 20. That is a choice. Teams make those choices. Obviously, they made the right choice."
Added McGrady: "Guys showed a lot of character by playing hurt and just going out there every night and giving it 110 percent. That's all you can ask for."
McGrady was all the Magic could ask for and a whole lot more. Acquired at the same time as Hill through free agency, the former Toronto forward blossomed in Orlando into the superstar many predicted. He averaged 26.8 points while playing 40.1 minutes and won the league's Most Improved Player Award.
"I was thrown to the wolves," McGrady said of having to carry Orlando offensively with Hill injured. "And I fought back."
Miller, the rookie out of Florida, was a nice surprise for Rivers, who believed in Miller even though many, including former Lakers star Magic Johnson, questioned his NBA readiness after two collegiate seasons.
Miller, whose development was accelerated by Hill's absence, averaged almost 30 minutes a game and finished as Orlando's fourth-leading scorer at 11.9 points a game, marking him as a serious Rookie of the Year candidate.
"The first step was to make the playoffs," said Rivers, who signed a contract extension this season. "The next step is to win in the playoffs."
First, Orlando figures to once again be busy in the free-agent market. The Magic is believed to be shopping for a physical power forward to complement McGrady and Hill. Toronto's Antonio Davis (13.7 points and 10.1 rebounds), who is good friends with McGrady, is said to be at the top of Orlando's list and is believed to be interested in playing with McGrady again.
"We're going to be back next year," McGrady vowed. "I'm going to walk out of here with my head held high and I hope the rest of the guys do the same because we'll definitely be back next year."