In 2003, the NBA changed the format of their first round series from best of five to best of seven. It was obviously a money play, as the best of five format probably brought more excitement to the opening round. Nonetheless, the rules had been changed and in the first year of said change, both number one seeds lost their opening game. Out west, San Antonio was beaten at the buzzer by Stephon Marbury and the Phoenix Suns. In the east, well, that is the game we are going to talk about today.
Orlando @ Detroit, game one, was broadcast by ESPN with Brent Musberger and Sean Elliot on the call. This was the first year ESPN/ABC had a national NBA contract, after more than a decade of national games being broadcasted by NBC. After watching this game it is obvious that ESPN hadn’t found their footing in the NBA world yet, I mean, Sal Masekela of all people was the sideline reporter. Anyway, lets get to the action.
The East, surprise, was bad in ’03 and even though this was a 1 v. 8 matchup, only eight games separated the two clubs. Orlando came in with some confidence and the scoring champ, Tracy McGrady. The game got off to a sloppy start with both teams having limited offensive firepower. McGrady made his first big time move at the midway point of the first quarter with a jab step into a lefty drive and reverse layup finish. It was clear that Detroit wanted to get Richard Hamilton going and I have to say, it was very odd watching Hamilton play without a mask on.
Orlando definitely looked to run more than Detroit in this game and they had the weapons to do it, with Darrell Armstrong and Chris Whitney acting as nice change of pace guards off the bench. Detroit’s offense was strangely reliant on veteran Cliff Robinson, which showed why they needed Rasheed Wallace so badly the following year. Shawn Kemp checked into the game for Orlando, looking quite large. Late in the first quarter the cameras pan to LeBron James, who is in the crowd wearing a Bulls jersey and sitting with Maverick Carter. The Magic led 24-19 after one.
Kemp hit his second jumper since coming in to enhance the Magic lead early in the second and actually looked pretty good out there. Midway through the second quarter, T-Mac had the play of the game, dunking on Mehmet Okur after a sweeping left baseline drive. Shortly after that, we got Sal Masekela interviewing LeBron. Also, random, but Tim Donaghy officiated the contest. This game had everything.
To start to fourth quarter, Magic coach Doc Rivers went with Whitney and Armstrong together in the backcourt. McGrady hit a pair of threes as Detroit looked helpless in guarding the scoring machine. Orlando kept feeding T-Mac and he kept delivering, scoring 12 straight Magic points to give him 38 for the game at that point. Orlando’s lead was pushed to 11 but Detroit tightened up and kept getting to the free throw line, eventually closing the lead. The Gooden v. Ben Wallace matchup was honestly somewhat fun to watch as the rookie Gooden tried to use his athleticism to negate Wallace’s supreme strength.
Orlando finished the game with a lineup of Pat Garrity, Gordan Giricek, Armstrong, McGrady and Gooden. The last few minutes of this game won’t go in a time capsule. There were free throws, tough shots and a weird possession where Orlando was forced to use two timeouts just to get the ball in, and then when they did inbound it Gooden didn’t really even get a shot off. Billups actually cut the lead to one at one point, but McGrady free throws and Orlando coming up with some stops effectively sealed the win for the Magic, 99-94.
The main takeaways from this game for me are 1) both teams offenses were very limited 2) McGrady’s first step is just so quick, he was a nightmare to defend 3) the way ESPN broadcasts games is so different now that it was hard to even imagine it as the same company while I was watching this one. I enjoyed parts of the action, but this shouldn’t go down as some all-time classic. Oh, by the way, McGrady finished with a Magic franchise playoff high, 43 points on 15-28 shooting, 10-12 from the free throw line and seven rebounds.