Posted Jan 26 2011 8:04AM
Hedo Turkoglu looked up from tying his sneakers and let a smile run a fast break all the way across his face. He's back in Orlando and back in the game.
It's been like tip-toeing at midnight through a house that you've lived in for years, never bothering to flip on a light switch, never worrying about bumping into the furniture.
"This is a style of basketball that fits me," Turkoglu said.
It couldn't be cozier if he were wearing an old sweater, holding a mug of hot cocoa and sitting on a rug in front of the fireplace with the family cat purring on his lap.
"I never thought that I would be back, especially not this soon," Turkoglu said. "I wish I had never left."
That he did is one of those oft-told tales of modern times where players and teams contribute to climate change with hot air about chemistry and bonding, then throw it all out the window over the Benjamins.
After Turkoglu was the second-best player on the Magic team that lost in the 2009 NBA Finals to the Lakers, there was every reason to saddle up the old gang and let them take another shot again last season. But there were $53 million worth of reasons why it didn't happen, the size of the free agent five-year contract that Orlando wasn't willing to offer and Turkoglu got in Toronto.
"At that time it was a choice that happened from both sides," Turkoglu said. "Both sides tried to move on from that situation and to make the best of a new direction."
But the truth is both sides were traveling down separate paths lined more with pride and dogma than their mutual best interest.
What the Magic got was an Eastern Conference finals whipping at the hands of the Celtics and what Turkoglu got was a lost season in Toronto, then a trade last summer to Phoenix that only made things worse.
"I wanted and expected in those places to be the guy that could do the things that I'm comfortable doing," he said. "I wanted to be making plays, a facilitator, someone who is good with the ball and creates open shots for his teammates.
"Instead I was used in a different way in both of those situations. I don't have an answer for that. They tried to use me as a guy off the ball, a spot-up shooter. I respect those teams and maybe what their plans were. I went out there and tried to do my best in those situations. But it wasn't me. It wasn't who I can be.
"But what I hate the most is having people think I didn't try hard or do much for 1 ½ years and wasted that time."
Of course, a bigger version of the same accusation could have been made of the Magic, who blew up the best team in the history of their franchise in the name of fiscal restraint and managing the budget down the line when they were maybe standing on the doorstep of their first championship.
General manager Otis Smith has since admitted his mistake, albeit with a mountain of caveats. Though what really matters now is that Turkoglu returned to Orlando on Dec. 18, the day Jason Richardson and Gilbert Arenas also arrived in a declaration that shouted the future is now and the Magic have gone 13-6 (.684) since.
"I was disappointed and hurt when our Finals team traded away Hedo and Courtney Lee," said center Dwight Howard. "I thought that was an awesome team that deserved another chance."
As perhaps the last remaining dominant center in the league, Howard missed not only Turkoglu's ballhandling skills and make big shots in key situations, but also his ability to make the entry pass into the low post.
"A 6-10 guy who knows right where I like it and can get it there? Yeah, I was glad to see him back," Howard said.
Though Turkoglu's scoring average is significantly down from his last season with the Magic (16.8 to 11.4), that's because his shot attempts are also down (13.3 to 8.9) due to the fact that this team has more explosive offensive options in Richardson, Arenas and point guard Jameer Nelson, who had missed the second half of the 2008-09 season following surgery.
"We may not be using him as much in terms of giving him the ball, because we've got other guys who can make plays," said coach Stan Van Gundy. "But I think we do give him plenty of opportunity and we do put the ball in his hands and use him in the same ways. I'd just like to see him be a little more aggressive than he has been."
For Turkoglu, it's simply a matter of taking the time to get re-acclimated to a familiar system with a different cast of characters around him. He hung up a triple-double -- 10 points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists -- and also had five steals on Jan. 3 against Golden State and his highest scoring game of the season with 21 points on Saturday night in Houston.
"I am not going to be a guy to average 20 points a game," he said. "But I can get them if the situation is right and calls for it. And I think this team knows that I can do all of the other things -- rebound, pass, make the steals. These are the things I did here before.
"Sometimes making change is good, but sometimes you realize that what you should do is stick with what you've got and build on it."
He might as well have pulled on a pair of worn slippers, plopped down in the La-Z-Boy and rested his head on a soft pillow as soon as he set foot back in Orlando.
Hedo Turkoglu's grin returned.
"This feels good," he said.
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