BOSTON -- As a stream of jubilant Celtics players made their way down a back hallway in the TD Garden towards their locker room, an equally despondent Stan Van Gundy hustled past them in the other direction. As he headed for the dais, the Magic's fiery head coach could barely contain his disappointment.
"It's as disappointing as it gets," Van Gundy said. "I've never won a championship. The only guy in our locker room that has is Jason Williams. If you haven't won a championship, every season ends in disappointment. I've been through it three times now where I've had teams that I thought were good enough to have a chance. So when it ends, it's an even bigger disappointment than in other years."
Van Gundy's frustration is more than understandable. The Cavaliers dripped with hype coming into the postseason, but it was the Magic who believed they were the ones with the substance. Sure, they were without they stylish Hedo Turkoglu, who sought greener pastures (and more green) in Toronto in the offseason. But this team had put together a star-studded supporting cast around All-Everything center Dwight Howard and had ballooned the payroll to $82 million (more when you factor in the luxury tax) in a not-so-subtle attempt to go all-in this season.
"I liked our talent," said Van Gundy. "I liked our guys commitment throughout the year. When you have that as a coach, you feel like you should be able to get them over the top. You really do. It's disappointing to me that we didn't play better in this series and get the job done."
The gulf between those that played well for Orlando and who didn't is as wide as the Grand Canyon. Howard wasn't flawless, but he battled a rough-and-tumble Celtics team that was determined to beat his body and spirit every time down the floor. With his team being overwhelmed by Boston's surge in Game 6, Howard still muscled in 28 points and pulled down 12 rebounds.
"I thought he played terrific," said Van Gundy.
Friday night wasn't Jameer Nelson's finest effort (11 points, four assists in 32 foul-filled minutes), but it's hard to fault Nelson for the Magic's downfall, either. Nelson singlehandedly salvaged the series with a brilliant 23 point, nine-assist effort in Game 4 and, with Van Gundy making him the focal point of the offense, stunned the Celtics with 24 points in Game 5.
But far too often Nelson and Howard were a two-man show. Rashard Lewis was invisible this series, shooting better than 50 percent once and ending his season with a seven-point (on 3 of 11 shooting) clunker. Vince Carter wasn't much better. Though Carter was far more aggressive in Game 6 than he was at any other game against Boston, his inability to take command of any game cost Orlando dearly. It's the story of Carter's career: He dominates ... sometimes. He is electrifying ... sometimes. He disappears ... a lot.
The Magic now face an offseason clouded in uncertainty. Most of the roster is locked in, with only Williams, Anthony Johnson, Adonal Foyle (unrestricted free agents), J.J. Redick (restricted free agent) and Matt Barnes (player option) having the freedom to look elsewhere. But clearly, changes are needed.
"Next year we have got to have guys that are willing to give everything they have got to get wins," Howard said. "[Boston] played like they wanted to win the championship the whole series. That's why they are in the position that they are in now."
Help, of course, can come from the outside. The Magic will be well over the salary cap but can use their mid-level exception to try and lure a veteran power forward into the fold. But ownership might not be quite so eager to push the payroll close to $100 million, not with Redick eyeing a big raise and Williams (or another backup point) needed to relieve Nelson.
Besides, the bigger changes can come from within. There is no question that Howard is the most dominant defensive player of this era. But his offensive repertoire is pathetic and his inability to face up and show Boston different looks stymied Orlando's attack. Howard is a 6-foot-11, 265-pound well of still untapped talent. But any scout will say that Howard's game has seen minimal growth over the last few years, if any at all. Magic assistant coach Patrick Ewing made a career of dropping 15-footers over defenders too afraid to press him on the perimeter. If Howard can develop a fraction of Ewing's moves, he would become an almost unstoppable force.
Can he? That's the million-dollar question, one that Van Gundy and GM Otis Smith should pepper Howard with on a regular basis this summer. Sure, the Magic could use some help. So could every team. But Orlando is in a position to better themselves by bettering one of their own. Somehow, some way, they have to find a way to do just that.