- The Washington Times - Monday, June 15, 2009

ORLANDO, FLA. (AP) - The parades down nearby Walt Disney World, the kind where confetti flies and smiles flow _ the ending Orlando Magic fans have long waited for _ will be reserved for other teams this year.

Championship celebrations here are never for the home team.

The Magic overcame injuries, came back from almost every obstacle and returned to the spotlight to make only their second appearance in the NBA finals, but the best season in franchise history ended with a thud.

An NBA title trophy was handed out for the first time in Orlando, and it left quickly with the winners. The Los Angeles Lakers headed home with their 15th championship Monday, leaving the Magic still searching for their first.

“We did a lot of things that nobody in this room besides me and my teammates and a couple other staff members believed we could do,” Magic center Dwight Howard said. “So there’s no need for us to hold our heads.”

This may only be the beginning for the Magic.

Their All-Star core of Howard, Rashard Lewis and Jameer Nelson are signed long term and should remain intact along with most of the key players to this season’s run. Nelson, whose premature comeback in the finals was mostly a flop, is expected to make a full recovery by training camp.

But for everything the Magic accomplished this season, they remain a work in progress. Their dependence on the 3-point shot, inconsistency at point guard _ which they hope Nelson’s return can resolve _ and late-game collapses were their downfalls.

All that aside, Orlando truly believes the pieces are in place to win a title and just needs time and experience to grow. Already, the Magic are using their finals loss as motivation the same way the Lakers did when they were eliminated by Boston a year ago.

“You can learn a lot from losing. Sometimes you’ve got to lose to win,” Howard said.

The biggest question this offseason for the Magic is with Hedo Turkoglu.

He has a player option for next season, but Orlando’s 30-year-old starting forward from Turkey has said he will likely opt out of the last year of his contract to become a free agent. Turkoglu would make about $7.3 million next season in the final year of a $36 million, six-year deal.

The 6-foot-10 Turkoglu provides all kinds of matchup problems for opponents, and his rare size and ballhandling skills have made him the player the Magic run their offense through when it counts the most. That earned him the nickname “Mr. Fourth Quarter” from teammates, who said they hope the Magic find a way to keep him.

“I hope he stays. If I don’t convince him, I might have to go to Turkey and kidnap him,” Lewis joked.

Backup center Marcin Gortat will be an unrestricted free agent and likely get a contract worth well more than the $770,00 he made this season, meaning Orlando likely will not be able to retain him. General manager Otis Smith has said he would like to keep both, but that would require moving a few players to clear salary cap space or go over the luxury tax.

The Magic might have some wiggle room.

They have four point guards on the roster with Nelson’s return. Nelson will begin next season as the starter, and Orlando will have to determine if it wants to try to move Rafer Alston or keep him as the backup in place of reliable reserve Anthony Johnson. Tyronne Lue also is still on the roster.

Whatever happens, it’s hard for the Magic to look back on this season with anything but positive memories. They were the comeback team all season.

Nelson went out with a shoulder tear in February that seemed to wreck the Magic’s season, then Alston was acquired at the trade deadline to keep their title hopes alive. Orlando lost on two buzzer-beaters in the playoffs, twice rallied from a series deficit, won a Game 7 in Boston to eliminate the defending-champion Celtics and knocked out MVP LeBron James and the top-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers.

But Orlando blew chances in Games 2 and 4 to lose in overtime against the Lakers, then were forced to try to become the first time in finals history to rebound from a 3-1 series deficit. That was one rally that fell short.

“I don’t know if you can console anybody. It’s very, very difficult,” Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said. “I feel the same way they did this year. They were a great group to work with. They busted their (butt) all year, and attitude-wise and stuff they were great.”

But the road doesn’t seem like it will end here for this Magic team.

Unlike when Shaquille O’Neal bolted for Los Angeles after the ‘96 season _ a year after the Magic were swept in the finals by Houston _ and left the franchise decimated, Orlando has tried to build a long-term future around Howard. He was the NBA’s defensive player of the year after leading the league in blocks and rebounds this season, and at only 23 years old, he seems well on way to being a dominant center for years to come.

“I’ve got a great feeling that we’ll have a chance to be back,” Howard said. “There’s no doubts in my mind about that.”

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