Posted Mar 24 2010 10:23AM
They haven't had an attention-grabbing, double-digit winning streak like the Mavericks, and they haven't charged up the standings like the Bucks. As of Wednesday morning, they're only a single game closer to first place in the Eastern Conference then they were at the All-Star break.
But since the break, the Orlando Magic have been the best team in the NBA ... by far.
The Magic are 14-3 since the break, second only to the Bucks (15-3). But statistically, Orlando has been more dominant than anybody. The Magic have outscored their opponents by 14.8 points every 100 possessions over those 17 games. The next best team since the break has been the Phoenix Suns, who have been just 9.3 points better than their opponents.
The Magic have been terrific defensively since November. For the second straight season, they're the top defense in the league, allowing 99.7 points every 100 possessions, a hair less than the Celtics. But it's been on offense that they've taken off since the break.
|Best Since the All-Star Break|
|Points per 100 possessions|
|Off. Rat. = Points scored per 100 possessions|
Def. Rat. = Points allowed per 100 possessions
With Vince Carter finding the right balance between aggressiveness and unselfishness, and Jameer Nelson all the way back from arthroscopic knee surgery, the Magic are now as potent as any offense in the league. And when a team has both a great offense and a great defense ... well, even Magic coach Stan Van Gundy admits that he's happy with the way his team is playing.
The famously excitable coach seems able now to move past the occasional defeat without much stress.
"You're going to lose games and you have to deal with it and move on," Van Gundy said Monday. "You try to keep in perspective how you're playing and getting better. And we've been playing very well."
With Van Gundy, though, happiness is always relative. It's not as if he's satisfied.
"I'm never comfortable," he said. "I'm happy with the way we're playing. But comfortable, no. Because there's always areas where you've got to get better. You want to see improvement in those areas going down the stretch, and when you don't see it, you get uncomfortable."
If Van Gundy is happy with the way his team is playing -- as he should be -- he should be even happier with the way they're talking. The Magic players have the same outlook as their coach.
"I don't think we're at the level we want to be," center Dwight Howard said. "We're still gelling. We're still learning how to play together. We just want to be rolling come playoff time."
Monday's victory in Philadelphia was win No. 50, a mark that Carter had never reached in his first 11 seasons in the league. But the occasion brought him no satisfaction.
"I'm looking at the bigger picture," he said afterward. "I want to win it all."
The Magic aren't going to catch the Cavaliers, whom they currently trail by six games in the standings, for the best record in the league. And they're not likely to be caught by the Celtics or Hawks, both of whom they lead by 4 1/2 games.
They're as locked into their playoff seed as any team outside of Cleveland or L.A. But no matter what the stakes are, or how well they're playing, Carter says that the mentality stays the same. While there will be a loss here or there, the Magic aren't about to take their foot off the pedal.
"It can all be taken away in one series," he said. "So the approach is, each and every game, do the job. Look at [the opponent], I don't care who they are, as one of the best."
That may be difficult on some nights, especially at this time of year. Orlando's post-break schedule hasn't been all that challenging. Nine of the 14 wins since the All-Star Game have come against lottery-bound teams. But two have been over the most important of opponents. The Magic beat the Cavs on Feb. 21 and the Lakers on March 7. And last week, the Magic handed the resurgent Spurs their worst loss of the season.
Orlando is taking care of business against the weaker teams, and the Magic have held their own against the rest of the elite. Van Gundy may want to fine tune some things, but with three weeks to go in the regular season, no team is more ready for the playoffs than the Magic.
It's looking very likely that Cleveland and Orlando will meet again in the conference finals. And should that happen, the Cavs will again have home-court advantage. They have the best player in the world and a better supporting cast than they've ever put around him.
But that still may not be enough to get past the team that knocked them off a year ago. Because right now, the Magic are the best team in basketball.
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