|ESPN.com: NBA Playoffs 2009||[Print without images]|
PHILADELPHIA -- By the time things got exciting inside the Wachovia Center, almost nobody was left in the building.
The fans had long since stopped booing the home team off the court; the janitors were well on their way to having the aisles swept clean; and the floor crew was taking down the basket stanchions for the final time until fall. But inside the cinder-block-walled visiting locker room, players in suits, players in towels and players seeking to borrow a sports jacket to comply with the NBA dress code (that would be you, Rafer Alston), had their eyes riveted to the television set hanging from the ceiling.
First, the Orlando Magic were mesmerized by the first overtime of the Boston-Chicago game. Next, they were astounded by the end of the second overtime ("How could they not foul Ray Allen before he hit that ninth 3?" was one of the prevailing expressions.)
Then, when the game finally ended with Rajon Rondo missing a heave from midcourt to end triple overtime, the Magic players bolted from the back door of the locker room and made a happy beeline to their waiting bus, at least one of them exchanging a high five with head coach Stan Van Gundy as he sat in the front row of the vehicle.
Yes, it would be a happy flight back to Orlando. And it would be made all the happier because the Magic knew they would not be turning right back around Friday to reboard their charter jet and fly up to Boston for Game 1 of the second round.
Instead, their next opponent remains unknown, which means they'll have two extra days to rest, get a little healthier and soak up some of the adulation they'll get back home after finishing off the Philadelphia 76ers with relative ease Thursday night in Game 6 of their first-round series, 114-89, despite playing without two starters.
Center Dwight Howard was forced to watch the game from a hotel as he served a one-game suspension for throwing an elbow, and Courtney Lee was recovering from surgery for a fractured sinus at a local hospital.
Were they missed?
The smiles afterward on the faces of Marcin Gortat and J.J. Redick showed how much they weren't.
Redick played what arguably can be called the most clutch game of his NBA career, knocking down five 3-pointers for his 15 points, and Gortat manned the middle admirably in Howard's place, pulling down 15 rebounds, scoring 11 points and making a sequence of key plays midway through the third quarter when the Sixers' one and only charge came up woefully short.
"It's an amazing feeling," Gortat said. "The whole year for me was hard. Playing behind Dwight Howard isn't easy. I'm happy I helped my team win the game, I'm happy I didn't disappoint my coach, and now we're in the next round."
Not a lot is known on these shores about Gortat, the 25-year-old from Poland who was a 2005 second-round pick and will be a free agent in line for a windfall this summer.
We could call him the Poler Opposite, or the Poler Excess, although Gortat wasn't all that enthralled with those monikers as he explained afterward that he is known in Europe as "the Polish Machine" and in the Orlando locker room as "the Polish Hammer."
Whatever you want to call him, the guy was a heavyweight who made certain the Magic didn't miss their All-Star center. (Best Gortat fact: His father fought Leon Spinks twice, losing to the eventual world heavyweight champion at the 1976 Olympics after defeating Spinks earlier in a World Amateur championship bout.)
Gortat had a vicious left-handed dunk over two defenders early in the third for a 64-50 lead, then scored on the break off a missed 3 by Andre Iguodala, then defended Samuel Dalembert so well that Dalembert's shot attempt smacked into the bottom of the backboard, leading to a transition 3 by Alston; then, Gortat nailed back-to-back jumpers while Orlando was building its advantage back into the 20s.
It turned the fourth quarter into garbage time, after which the waiting and watching commenced.
Finally, at about 11:15 p.m. ET, two busloads of happy Orlando players drove off from the loading dock at last, with the weekend suddenly looking a whole lot easier and more appealing than it would have if the Celtics had won that triple-overtime thriller in Chicago.
Now, the Magic won't have to deal with either of those teams until Tuesday, and they might even get to stay home a few extra days if the Bulls end up defeating Boston and advancing to the second round.
Either way, all the excitement for the Magic on Saturday will be found in the same place it resided Thursday -- on the television.Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Sheridan, click here.