Posted Oct 29 2009 7:07AM
ORLANDO -- You'll forgive the Magic if they didn't come wearing their party clothes. To them, there's nothing to celebrate.
"Opening night," said Dwight Howard, "rah-rah or whatever."
The franchise unveiled a spanking new banner hanging from the rafters at Amway Arena that said: "Eastern Conference Champions 2008-09."
For all it mattered to the Magic, the sign might as well have been advertising a $9.95 all-you-can-eat buffet for the tourists on their way to Disney World.
For all that went right for Orlando through all of last season and through all of the playoff run last spring, all that sticks in Howard's mind about the Magic's home court is that it was the place where Kobe Bryant and the Lakers wrapped up the Finals and celebrated.
"Every time I step into arena, I still picture that at the end of the game. I don't think about us winning the Eastern Conference finals. I think of us losing in the Finals."
Howard remembers the scene of the joyous Lakers very well because he forced himself to take in. When the horn sounded and the Magic were beaten 4 games to 1, Howard dragged teammate Jameer Nelson back out to courtside.
"I did that in high school when we lost a championship game, too," Howard said. "It's motivation.
"Opening night is only one night. We expect to still be playing in late June and winning the championship."
If you were one of the 17,461 crammed into the sold-out seats for the start of the last season in the 21-year-old building, those are the kind of words you live to hear, even after the Magic whipped the Sixers 120-106. Especially after a win like that, because it means they aren't content with what they already achieved.
Maybe the rest of the basketball world saw the Magic as an uplifting underdog story last season, getting past by the Kevin Garnett-less Celtics and then slaying the dragon of LeBron James and the Cavaliers. But inhabitants of the Orlando locker room view it simply as unfinished business.
After all, the spilled Lakers champagne had barely been mopped up when Magic general manager Otis Smith started cleaning his own house. First, he let key offensive cog Hedo Turkoglu simply walk right out the door. Then he traded two-fifths of the Finals starting lineup -- Rafer Alston and Courtney Lee -- to replace him with Vince Carter. He also got sharpshooting Ryan Anderson in the deal with Carter. Then he signed Brandon Bass to bolster the frontline, picked up versatile swingman Matt Barnes and surprised many by matching the free agent offer sheet to keep Marcin Gortat. And in August they signed veteran point guard Jason Williams for good measure.
"We've got the right team," Howard said. "We've got a great team. I know everybody's underestimating us."
Everybody, that is, except the Magic.
Curiously enough, for a franchise that has never won a championship, the Magic are not at all shy talking specifically about it.
"Everybody knows, the only goal we have in here is to win the championship," Howard said after shooting 9-for-11, scoring 21 points and grabbing 15 rebounds in just 29 minutes.
"I think it's natural just on where you've gotten (in the past)," said Magic coach Stan Van Gundy. "Unless you're Chicago and you've won your sixth one and you break up your whole team, I don't think expectations ever go down. With us, we went to the Finals. So where are the expectations gonna go? The only thing left is to win a championship.
"I don't think that's anything we're afraid to talk about. It's the standard we want to be measured by. We know there are a lot of other people out there with just as good a chance as we have to win it. We know we're a long, long, long, long way away both chronologically and performance wise. But that's certainly the goal and we're not afraid of it."
That was a lofty standard the Magic set in the first three quarters on Wednesday night, filling it up from the outside with a barrage of 3-pointers in building a 100-69 lead. For the night, the Magic shot 16-for-29 on 3-pointers, as newcomers Anderson (4-for-7) and Williams (3-for-4) fit right in.
"The successful organizations in this league, they don't just pick players willy-nilly," said Van Gundy. "I think there's a philosophy behind how you're gonna play and you go out and get people that are not only good players, but that fit the way you play.
"We've got a very good center combination, obviously with Dwight and also with Marcin. But we've also got another good inside guy now in Brandon. But everyone else on that roster can shoot the hell out of the ball. That's not by chance. That's Otis being very diligent. He put together a team that fits. We're not always gonna shoot like this, but we're capable of doing that on a given night and it makes us pretty tough to play."
What could make them tougher are the memories and the attitude the Magic are carrying into a new season.
"This is just the opener," said Howard.
There's nothing to celebrate.
Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here.
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