Nothing magical for Orlando in Game 5

The Canadian Press

6/14/2009 11:18:12 PM

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Dwight Howard plopped down on the bench, pulled his jersey into his mouth and stared at Kobe Bryant and the rest of the Los Angeles Lakers celebrating on his homecourt.

He couldn't move.

The best season in Orlando Magic history came to a close Sunday night, losing 99-86 to the Lakers in Game 5 of the NBA finals.

As teammates filed to the locker room slowly, Howard didn't budge. Finally, Jameer Nelson came back to give him some company on the bench, a view that had been great for most of this season.

Now it's over.

"What I just told Jameer is look at it, just see how they're celebrating," Howard said. "And it should motivate us to want to get in the gym, want to get better, just to see those guys celebrating."

The Lakers ran off 16 straight points in a dominant second quarter to go ahead 56-46, built a 16-point lead early in the third period and coasted to their 15th championship. The Magic never came close.

The sound of happy Lakers fans scattered throughout Amway Arena kept the building from going silent. The smiles on the Magic fans were replaced with frowns, that hopeful feeling swapped for more heartache.

Howard and Nelson watched it all.

"I went over to give him a hug," Nelson said. "He just wanted me to stay there with him. He's taking it hard. We all are."

Orlando had relied so heavily on three-pointers all season but couldn't connect for most of Game 5. The Magic had 13 turnovers and no answer for Los Angeles' potent offence.

As painful as the final game was for Howard and his teammates, the memories of the Magic meltdowns in Games 2 and 4 are likely to sting even worse.

Those games were there for the Magic to take.

Orlando guard Courtney Lee missed an alley-oop attempt at the regulation buzzer in Game 2, a potential winning shot. The Magic lost in overtime.

But it got worse.

Orlando was ahead 87-84 with 11.1 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter of Game 4 when Howard missed a pair of free throws that could have sealed the game and tied the series. Instead, the Magic again lost in overtime.

"It's definitely bitter," Rashard Lewis said. "We made it all the way to the finals and couldn't seal the deal."

Orlando returned to the finals for only the second time in franchise history, coming back in the spotlight for the first time since Shaquille O'Neal left the franchise in ruins when he bolted for Los Angeles after the 1996 season. The Magic were swept 4-0 by the Houston Rockets in the '95 finals.

Howard, the defensive player of the year, struggled to dominant offensively against the Lakers the way he had for most of the playoffs. He had 11 points and 10 rebounds in Game 5.

Back in the locker room, long after most of the stragglers and teammates had cleared, he sat at in his chair dejected. Nelson again came over, gave him a pat on the head and whispered a few words in his ear.

The feeling shared throughout the Magic locker room.

"It's tough on him," Magic point guard Rafer Alston said. "It's tough on everyone. He's the franchise player, but we're all hurting."

If there's any for the Magic consolation, their all-star core of Howard, Lewis and Nelson -- whose premature comeback from a shoulder injury for the finals was mostly a flop -- should remain intact.

But a few key pieces could bolt.

Hedo Turkoglu has a player option for next season, but Orlando's 30-year-old starting forward has said he will likely opt of the last year of his contract to become a free agent. Backup centre Marcin Gortat will be an unrestricted free agent, meaning Orlando likely will not be able to afford to keep both.

The Magic believe their future is bright.

"We can take a lot out of this season," Nelson said. "This is only the beginning."