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Shaun Powell

Jermeer Nelson
Jameer Nelson had 17 points to help fuel the Magic's Game 1 victory.
Ron Hoskins/NBAE/Getty Images

Magic put winning-without-a-superstar theory to test

Posted Apr 30 2012 8:46AM

INDIANAPOLIS -- They want Dwight Howard, respect Dwight Howard and like Dwight Howard but the Magic also give the impression they don't care about Dwight Howard right now.

"We all we got," yelled Big Baby Davis, and he's probably Howard's closest friend on the team.

And so, the playoff slogan for the Magic, while grammatically incorrect, is perfect in other ways. They all they got. And what they have, for the moment anyway, is the lead in their first-round series with the Pacers.

Because of back surgery, they don't have the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, who also happens to be the most dominant center in the game and the player most responsible for their success. They don't have anyone's attention in the basketball world. They certainly don't have much respect, which you could understand. And although they just beat the Pacers, who amongst us is willing to put a week's wages on that happening three more times? Or even two?

What they do want and demand is a chance to show they can overcome the loss of their franchise player, if only for a game or two. Is that too much to ask? Can we at least give them that?

"People act like we don't have any NBA players on this team," said Jason Richardson, somewhat indignantly. "Well, we have pride, too. A lot of players in this locker room have done things in this league, too."

Richardson put the Magic up for good in Game 1 with the biggest shot of the game. Despite a bum ankle, Davis outplayed Roy Hibbert, who has a four-inch height advantage. Hedo Turkoglu had to wear a protective mask for his facial injury. And a team that lives and dies by the three-pointer made them when it counted. They've had to reinvent themselves the last few weeks once Howard was lost for the year, and they might be the only one who believe they can pull this transition off.

A team can't go very far in the post-season without a superstar -- OK, they can't go anywhere -- but the Magic are trying to tweak that conventional wisdom as much as possible. Whether they truly believe this, or are simply sucking on the fumes of a surprising Game 1 win will depend on what they do from here.

"We're focused on this group," said Ryan Anderson. "I hope (Howard) is happy for us. I think he is. But we can't focus on what we don't have or who's not here."

Without Howard, the focus is on, who else, the coach who swears Howard is out to get him. Without Howard, this series is a referendum on Stan Van Gundy and his value within the franchise. With management, presumably, still weighing a choice between keeping Van Gundy or Howard -- and really, does a coach ever win these battles? -- Van Gundy can strike a huge victory for his profession in this series. Should Orlando push Indiana to the limit or even win, how satisfying would that be for Van Gundy? Would that give management something to chew on this summer?

"I think Stan is happy with how hard we've played lately," said Anderson. "This is what he wanted to see, everyone playing hard and compensating for what we're missing, which obviously is a lot, when you're talking about Dwight."

And if the Magic make the Pacers keep sweating, what would that say about Howard's teammates, especially? At this point, are they more pro-Van Gundy than pro-Howard? Or just players trying to prove a point?

"We've had a lot of adversity and it has pulled us all together," said Richardson.

They admit the drama surrounding Howard was starting to annoy them. And perhaps he was starting to annoy them. They dealt with the uncertainty of having him beyond the trade deadline, then the belief that Howard didn't want Van Gundy, which was confirmed awkwardly by Van Gundy. And finally, Howard's back surgery put the Magic in a bind with just weeks to prepare for the playoffs.

"Y'all look stunned," Davis said to the Indiana home crowd as he walked off the floor. "Real stunned."

Who isn't? One game into their first-round series, the Magic are in position to make this interesting. They're another win away from getting folks to look at what they have, instead of what they're missing.

"If you want to go far in the playoffs," said Davis, "you can't go alone. You've got to go together. What we just did is huge. We just did the unexpected."

Remember, this bunch was dismissed not only by the basketball public, but also by Howard. In addition to not wanting the coach, didn't he also demand the Magic find him better teammates, or else?

Frank Vogel, the Pacers coach, said something interesting. The Magic went 4-6 without Howard leading into the playoffs, and while that was probably four wins more than anyone thought, maybe there's a dynamic working in Orlando's favor at the moment.

"If there's any resentment for any reason (about a franchise player) ... I've been in situations where a guy says, `He's getting all the shots,' so when he goes out, it's like, `Now it's my chance.' Obviously there's been a great deal of distraction around Howard, so I'm sure there are guys in that locker room who want to show they can do it without him."

We all we got.

That's a famous line stolen from the movie "New Jack City."

It makes you wonder what else Van Gundy and the Magic are capable of stealing.

Another game?


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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