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Eastern Conference Insider: Orlando finds a mix that works

By Rob Peterson, NBA.com
Posted Jan 13 2009 12:26PM

Orlando general manager Otis Smith likes what he sees. Why shouldn't he?

By beating the Spurs in Texas on Sunday, Orlando swept San Antonio for the first time in franchise history. Smith looks at the roster and sees a maturing point guard in Jameer Nelson, last season's Most Improved Player in Hedo Turkoglu, Rashard Lewis (who takes and makes more 3-pointers than anyone in the NBA) and a perennial All-Star and MVP candidate in Dwight Howard. And unlike other teams, Smith doesn't have to make moves to get under the luxury tax because the trade deadline is approaching.

"You're always examining your team and seeing how you can get better," Smith said. "But you also have to be cognizant of your chemistry. And right now, we have very good chemistry. If you start to tinker with that, it's possible you mess some things up."

At 30-8, the Magic have the second-best record in the East, a half-game behind the 29-6 Cavaliers and in a virtual tie with the 31-9 Celtics. "We're getting better by the day, our confidence is growing by the day," Smith said.

Smith, who averaged 10.5 points a game in his six-season NBA playing career, may enjoy the view from atop the Southeast Division, but he still isn't satisfied.

"We're not where we want to be by any stretch, but our guys are playing hard," Smith said. "I think we're still striving to be the best. At this point, we haven't done anything. We're still a young basketball team that's trying to put it together to win a championship. Until you do that, you're chipping away at it."

Orlando continues to carve out a place among the league's best thanks to the 23-year-old Howard, who is tied for the NBA lead in rebounding (13.8 per game) and leads the league in blocks (3.3 per). It's Howard's ability to grab boards and erase shots that has allowed the Magic to be aggressive with their perimeter defense.

"I think they're defending better than they did last year," said an NBA scout. "I think Mickael Pietrus helped that before he was injured. They're able to put more pressure on the ball knowing Dwight is back there to protect the rim."

Smith notes that everything in the Magic universe revolves around their two-time All-Star.

"He's the anchor of our offense, he's the anchor of our defense," Smith said. "He controls the paint. The other guys have the confidence they can close out on shooters or send them in there and Dwight can block shots. Offensively, everything starts and stops with him."

Howard leads the team in scoring at 20.1 points per game, but the Magic do an excellent job of maintaining an inside-outside balance on offense. Lewis, who has hit a league-leading 111 3-pointers, is second with 19.1 points per game and Turkoglu, who can run the offense on occasion, averages 16.9 points per game.

"Stan Van Gundy has done a very good job with this team," said the scout. "They put four out on the perimeter and one in the post. If you double on Dwight, he can pass it out and the other guys can knock down shots. If you don't double Dwight, he can power to the rim or get fouled.

"They're also a big-time pick-and-roll team. That helps spread the floor and the Magic get defenses out of position so they're helping on the wrong guys. And if you do that, they're going to knock down shots."

Then there's Nelson, who is often seen by scouts as the weak link in the Magic's title aspirations. Whether he's exploiting mismatches and making good decisions from the Magic's pick-and-roll set or shooting .504 from the field, Nelson, the fifth-year point guard, has become the Magic's offensive engine.

"He makes us go, there's no doubt about it," Smith said. "When he's playing aggressive and attacking the basket, we're a pretty good team. When he's content to stay on the perimeter and pass the ball around and take spot-up jumpers, we're just an average basketball team."

Recently, the Magic have followed Nelson's aggressive lead. On Christmas, Orlando built a 30-point halftime lead over the Hornets en route to an 88-68 win. The Magic have clobbered the Atlanta Hawks, their Southeast division rivals, twice in the last week, including a 121-87 win in Orlando in which the Magic had built a 101-51 lead. Even when the Magic haven't been on cruise control, Smith has been pleased with his team's grit.

"We're showing good resolve," he said. "We're sharing the ball particularly well. Our guys are battling to win every game. That's the key. Even if we haven't shot the ball well, we've found a way to win, and that's what championships teams do."

But are the Magic championship caliber?

"I don't know how you guys do it, but I can only look at the records," Smith said. "I can't guess or speculate like the experts do. I'm not an expert. But we're sitting here at 30-8 ...

"The key to us is to play healthy basketball leading into the postseason and give yourself a chance. And that's what we're trying to do. Trying to play healthy basketball. We really don't care if our name is mentioned with those other teams or not, because up until you win a championship, you really haven't done anything. I think our guys realize that."

Layups

Earlier in the season, the Hawks went 6-6 when Josh Smith was out with a high-ankle sprain. Now, they face the prospect of not having second-year power forward Al Horford because of a bone bruise in his right knee. The Hawks have no timetable for his return. Zaza Pachulia will start in Horford's place ... The Nets also received some bad news when they found out Yi Jianlian will miss four-to-six weeks with a broken pinkie. Yi had just started to warm up, too, averaging 17.6 points and seven rebounds in the four games before his injury ... With the trade deadline approaching on Feb. 19, talk is heating up. The Racine Journal-Times reports the Bucks and Grizzlies have a deal in the works to send point guard Ramon Sessions and the No. 8 overall pick in the 2008 Draft, Joe Alexander, to Memphis in exchange for point guard Michael Conley ... Welcome back, Mike Dunleavy. The Pacers' swingman missed the first 34 games of the season with a knee injury. While Indiana is just 1-3 in his four games back, Dunleavy has made the most of his limited court time by averaging 16.3 points in 22.5 minutes per game ...

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