"Any time somebody says that, I appreciate the comments," Hardaway said earlier this season. "But there's only one Magic Johnson, and one Penny Hardaway.
"And so far I haven't done anything," Hardaway added. "I haven't won a championship. So there is no comparison."
After the Orlando Magic got swept by Houston in the NBA Finals last year, many assumed that title run would come this season. But going into this afternoon's Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Chicago Bulls, Orlando finds itself down 2-0. And the Magic faces the improbable task of winning four of five games against a team that lost just 10 times during the regular season.
"It's tough," Hardaway said. "Tough, but not impossible."
Making it even tougher is the loss of Horace Grant (hyperextended left elbow), who is out for the series. And Grant's backup, Jon Koncak, could miss today's game with a sore left knee.
So that leaves a lot of the burden on Shaquille O'Neal and Hardaway, the 6-foot-7, third-year point guard who was named to the all-NBA first team for the second straight season.
Hardaway is the real key. Although he has yet to win a title, Hardaway's size and ability have not been seen at point guard since the 6-foot-9 Johnson was redefining that position during the 1980s. Hardaway has the ability to post up smaller guards, shoot from the perimeter and hit the open man.
This season he was the only player in the league to average more than 20 points (21.7) and more than five assists (7.1), while shooting better than 50 percent from the field (51.0).
"He does the things now that only the great ones can do," Magic coach Brian Hill said. "That's why you want him controlling the game."
As the point guard, it's his job to get the ball into O'Neal, to get Orlando's 7-foot, 300-pound center easy scoring opportunities. And it's Hardaway's job to get the rest of this teammates involved.
The fact that O'Neal and Hardaway are the only two Magic players to get involved offensively during this series falls partly under the responsibility of Hardaway. Neither Dennis Scott nor Nick Anderson have been offensive threats in either game. And in Game 2, Hardaway wasn't aggressive enough in getting the ball in the second half when Orlando blew an 18-point lead.
Hardaway's ineffectiveness (he had zero assists in the second half) was partly due to the tight defense of Scottie Pippen. Still, Hardaway, who is scoring 28.0 points a game, must work harder to get the ball instead of standing and being a spectator.
"Scottie was on me so tight that anytime I went near the ball I was just disrupting things," Hardaway said. "There were some crucial times when they were making their run that, if I could have started making my shots, we could have started our run."
Of course, that Magic run never materialized. Now the series swings to Orlando, where the Magic lost just four games during the regular season. The team realizes that today's game is crucial.
"We can say anything we want to, but the reality is if you go down 0-3 it's pretty much done," Hardaway said.
Pub Date: 5/25/96