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Fran Blinebury

Until the Heat prove themself, the Orlando Magic won't let Miami be crowned king in the East.
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images

Orlando not settling for title of second best in East

Posted Jul 19 2010 2:03PM

Chris Bosh moves to Miami. Chris Duhon moves to Orlando. Miami keeps Dwyane Wade. Orlando keeps J.J. Redick.

Oh, yes, then there's LeBron James.

While everyone in the league felt the Heat when the Supremes decided to take their act to South Beach, nobody felt the searing flame of the blowtorch on the back of their necks like the Magic.

Poof! Your days as the No. 1 contender in the East disappeared. Wasn't that a neat trick?

Just don't blame Orlando for not buying into the illusion that their own position is suddenly as helpless as the beautiful stage assistant who's just been sawed in half.

Who can fault the Magic for feeling the slightest bit jilted after back-to-back seasons of 59 wins and consecutive playoff runs that took them to the Finals and the Eastern Conference finals?

Truth is, for the past two seasons the Magic have been like the winners of the Miss Personality competition in the NBA beauty pageant, getting far less respect and notoriety than those flashy, leggy entrants from Los Angeles, Cleveland and Boston.

That inferiority complex was already driving everyone from Mickey Mouse on up in the Magic Kingdom, but especially feeling like a burr under the saddle of Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy and general manager Otis Smith.

Before James even went on national television to make his breathless declaration that he was heading south to Miami, Van Gundy had already taken the first potshot at the Heat when he hung the label of Wade's "lapdog" on Bosh.

Then he turned his sights on LeBron.

"You don't hear Kobe Bryant and certainly not Kevin Durant talking about their brand," Van Gundy added. "I hear that from the other guys."

The G.M. Smith wasted no time wading into the roiling waters.

"Is Kobe retiring?" Smith asked, referring to the fact that the Lakers are the two-time defending champions. "Let's not give (Miami) a ring so fast...They have a chance ... that's all they have. Just like everybody else."

It is, of course, the same speech that Smith will give to his players when training camp opens and to every member of an organization that has to feel like it was just passed by the latest model Porsche on the autobahn.

With the Boston Celtics getting old enough to practically creak, with LeBron struggling to find the right combination of teammates and his own will in Cleveland, with the Lakers bench continuing to be a spot that makes them vulnerable, it stood to reason that the Magic believed their window to claim a championship or two or three for most of the next decade was wide open.

Then Pat Riley made his move to slam that window shut on their fingers.

Even in the middle of another sultry Florida summer, you can feel the chill in the Orlando air. This is the season when the Magic will move into the spanking new $380 million Amway Center and had expected to christen their homes with bubbly title talk. Now they suddenly get elbowed aside as the No. 2 team in the neighborhood. One minute Orlando is going into the season as the likely No. 1 contender it the Eastern Conference and the next everyone is wondering if they'll have what it takes to hold off Miami to merely win the Southeast Division title.

Envy? Jealousy? Bitter disappointment of seeing and feeling Miami stealing their thunder?

It's all of the above.

But it could also be the best thing that's happened to basketball in Florida since both franchises entered the league a season apart in the late 1980s. When Miami beat out Orlando by one year to begin play in the NBA in 1988, it was supposed to be the birth of a rival that was as close and suffocating as the Florida humidity in August.

Instead the Heat and Magic have spent the past two decades virtually riding on opposite ends of a seesaw with one team always down while the other is up. They have met in the playoffs just once, the Heat winning a first-round matchup 3-2 in 1997. Now the possibility of such a clash is enough to make the blood boil. Something would have to give.

When James was informed of some of the doubts creeping out of Orlando, he grinned. "Orlando, it's on," he said.

It is all the Magic can do to grit their teeth, continue smiling and remind everyone that they're the ones who have already established themselves as capable of piling up wins over the long haul of the regular season and making a run deep into the playoffs.

However, the Magic are the ones who chose to tweak the 2009 team that lost in the Finals in six games to the Lakers, swapping out Hedo Turkoglu for Vince Carter, and then suffered through an earlier playoff ouster last season.

Van Gundy and Smith know they still have the best big man in the game in Dwight Howard. But now he's got to overcome three of his ex-Team USA buddies ganging up on him. The folks in Orlando take pride in having built a contender the old-fashioned way, one brick at a time. Now they've seen Miami take the ultimate shortcut.

Circle Oct. 22 in St. Petersburg, Fla. on the calendar. Just a preseason game or the night Orlando starts to defend its, uh, magic?

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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