Posted May 5 2010 12:41AM
ORLANDO -- They aren't championship tested. Not after a first-round sweep and then a video game against the Hawks. But they could be ready. Championship ready.
Is the best team in these NBA playoffs the team you've barely seen? The Magic have only played five games, which could be enough to state their case. That's because they've managed to win while playing just OK, and when playing extraordinary, they remove all doubt.
Want more? Well, they've now won 25 out of 28, stretching their strong finish in the regular season into May.
They aren't the team with the league MVP, or the one with the most flair, or the most mature, or the most decorated. They do, however, bring Dwight Howard and friends and the most potent inside-outside combo in the game. When the ball whips around the circle and Howard doesn't hear many whistles and the 3-point shots are going down, does it matter who they've played? No, it matters how they can play.
"They're a great team, man," said Hawks guard Joe Johnson. "They' went to the championship round last year and they're hungry and eager to get back there again."
They applied a 43-point beating to the Hawks in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, holding Atlanta to 10 points in the second quarter and then pressing their heels against the Hawks' throat from there. Howard made five posters by halftime. The Magic made steals, baskets, stops, layups, it was all done so swiftly, so emphatically. The Hawks were in a daze, not unlike Josh Smith when his jaw rammed violently against Howard's elbow. As he lay on the court, with tweetybirds circling inside his head, J-Smoove no doubt said to himself: Oh, so that's what a realistic NBA champion feels like?
What the Magic did was show what they're capable of doing when Howard avoids fouls. And surely, the rest of the league watched a game that was utterly unwatchable, if only to get a sense of what's brewing in Orlando. Obviously, doubts will follow the Magic until they see a more quality opponent. Just the same, though, we've only witnessed a quality Orlando team once this postseason. You mean there could be more to come?
"We haven't really put it all together yet, as far as I'm concerned," said Otis Smith, the team's general manager. "It's been that way all year. Guys have been out of sync, trying to get to know one another, and dealing with a learning curve. Or maybe I'm just a chronic worrier. I don't know."
This, we do know: Nobody has found an answer yet for Howard. Besides the referees. He devours the Hawks every chance he gets, averaging 21 points and 17 rebounds during the regular season against his hometown team, then dropping 21 points, 12 rebounds and 5 blocks in just 28 minutes in Game 1 while rolling through the plethora of Hawks centers like a Hummer without brakes. Delicately, of course, while avoiding the fouls that dogged him in the Charlotte series.
"I didn't allow anything to throw me off my game," said Howard. "That's what I have to do for the rest of this series, not allow anything to keep me from playing basketball."
Jameer Nelson hasn't slowed down, either; he's still the player who torched Charlotte and raised his profile further with 19 points in limited time against Atlanta. Thus, the dilemma for the Hawks: They have nobody quite capable of guarding the two most important positions on the floor.
Furthermore, the Magic are a smart passing team, always managing to find the open man to stretch the defense and forcing teams to pick their poison. That's a credit to Stan Van Gundy, the system he put in place, and the pieces given to him by Smith. They offer no secrets or keep you guessing with what they do. They just do it and dare you to stop them.
"We have goals that we're trying to accomplish," said Vince Carter. "These guys are focused. We want to win a championship. It's going to boil down to how well we play defense, share the ball and our attention to detail. We know we still have work to do. That's why we won't relax or come unprepared."
Who's out there for Orlando? The Cavs offer LeBron James, and their mid-season upgrade of Antawn Jamison, along with Shaquille O'Neal for Howard. Well. Shaq is five steps slower and therefore almost guaranteed to collect fouls as he does endorsements. And Orlando is only one of the top defensive teams in basketball, so other than LeBron, points might be hard to come by. The Celtics? Old legs vs. young is usually a tall order.
Lakers and Kobe? Better yet, Andrew Bynum vs. Howard?
One game, if that's what you call it, against the Hawks doesn't make a champion. But it does give a glimpse of what a potential champion is made of.
Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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