Howard, Nelson watch Lakers celebrate
Want to know why Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson sat there on the Magic bench, blank expressions adorning their faces, after that final buzzer? Why Superman and one of his All-Star sidekicks stuck around as the championship trophy podium was hastily assembled and the Lakers stood victorious atop it?
Because that was what Howard wanted, and he wanted Nelson to witness, feel and share every raw, painful emotion that was tearing him apart inside.
"He wanted me to sit out there and let it soak in so we could get that feeling -- that bad feeling, actually, of how it feels, and not let it happen again," Nelson said. "We don't want it to happen again, so we stay out there to let it soak in, get upset a little bit.
"A motivational thing, that's it," Nelson said.
The rest of the Orlando players had walked off the court following the final buzzer of Sunday night's 99-86 loss to the Lakers, and were cheered as they made the brief sojourn past the premium seat holders who applauded them and shouted out encouragement, telling them they had nothing to be ashamed of. All of them (with the exception of coach Stan Van Gundy, who was clenching his jaw, and Rafer Alston, who was staring at the floor) had their heads held high, and no one was overly emotional in the locker room afterward.
Emotions weren't pouring out of Nelson or Howard, either, as they sat on the bench and made eye contact with their former teammate, Trevor Ariza, who gave them a nod -- it was impossible to tell if it was a friendly or unfriendly one -- as he stood on that podium with a freshly minted championship cap atop his head.
It was more of a tired, stoic look each young man wore -- the same type of hangdog looks that were coming from the Los Angeles Lakers almost one year ago to the date during the fourth quarter of their blowout loss in the deciding game in Boston when Celtics fans were going nuts through the final 12 minutes.
This one was similar, although not nearly as lopsided. The well of resilience that had brought the Magic back from the brink so many times in this postseason had run dry -- something that was clear in the early portion of the second quarter, when the Lakers went on their game-changing 16-0 run that put them in charge to stay in their NBA championship-clinching victory.
"Now they won't see us as losers. L.A. is brutal man, I won't have to go to Disneyland or someplace like that and hear, 'What happened to you guys?'" Kobe Bryant said afterward, describing how ecstatic Phil Jackson had looked in soaking in the celebration after he passed Red Auerbach for the most coaching championships in NBA history with 10.
What Nelson, Howard and the rest of the Magic did not see was how things looked in the visiting locker room, which smelled more of sweat than champagne, the Larry O'Brien Trophy sitting atop a table in the middle of the room surrounded by a half-dozen empty bottles of Moet and a few boxes of Wheaties with the Lakers' team picture strewn here and there. By the time many of Orlando's players were exiting the building (ironic side note: quite a few of the Magic players drive Challengers), most of the Lakers were still in their purple road uniforms basking in the moment that had eluded them so harshly a year ago.
"It's very, very difficult. I didn't have a lot to say tonight," Van Gundy said. "Obviously, the last game of the year, it's always hard because what you're used to doing as a coach is trying to say whatever you say with one eye on the next game or what's next, and when you hit the last game of the year, there's nothing. There's really not a lot to say as a coach."
Getting as far as they did in the playoffs was a significant achievement for a team that went into these playoffs as somewhat of an afterthought in the East behind LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers and the defending champion Celtics.
But if there was some solace to be taken in that fact, the nature of this loss was hard to swallow. As much as they tried to dismiss the idea beforehand, it was clear that the competitive fire had been sucked out of the Magic by the excruciating circumstances of their Game 4 loss, the one that will haunt them and linger with them through this summer so much more than this deciding game will.
"It hurts right now, it hurts," Nelson was saying in Orlando's locker room. "But we had a great season, and nobody can take away the things we did this season and say anything negative about us, one of only two teams left."
Except for the fact that at the end of the night, there was just one team still standing -- and two guys on the other bench who were sitting and staring. That moment will sit with Nelson and Howard and percolate in their brains in the days, months and perhaps even years ahead.
For all the success they achieved, the final night of their season was a failure.
"What I told Jameer is just look at it, just see how they're celebrating, and it should motivate us to want to get in the gym and get better, just to see those guys celebrating," Howard said. "It's like what I told Jameer: We were right there at our goal. Our goal was within reach. We were three games away from having the NBA title. So I told him next year we've got to be even more hungrier to be champions.
"It does hurt, but I'd rather sit there and watch it than go in the locker room and feel sorry for myself. It hurts, it hurts a lot, but you can learn a lot from losing. Sometimes you've got to lose to win," Howard said.
Those types of thoughts were what drove the Lakers after that beatdown they took in Beantown a year ago.
Only time will tell if it drives the Magic in a similar way.
Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Sheridan, click here.