Fresh off a 4-1 western road swing, the Orlando Magic are feeling pretty good about themselves as they head into a game with the Indiana Pacers. They felt similarly one year ago - right before their fast start hit a major skid.
Orlando (16-4) looks for its seventh win in eight games as it returns home to face the Pacers on Friday night in a matchup of the top scoring clubs in the Eastern Conference.
This hot start is similar to how the Magic began last season, having opened 14-5 following four wins in five games on the road against Western Conference opponents.
But Orlando traveled to Indiana on Dec. 6 to conclude that road trip and fell to the Pacers 94-80, the first of nine Magic losses in their next 12 games. They never fully recovered, eventually dropping as far as seven games below .500 before squeaking into the playoffs as the East's No. 8 seed, only to get swept by Detroit.
One difference this season is the first meeting between the clubs will take place in Orlando, where Indiana lost both of its games last season. Those are the Magic's only two victories in the last seven meetings overall.
No NBA team has played fewer home games than Orlando, which is 5-2 at Amway Arena compared to its league-best 11-2 road record.
"The road in a sense has been our home away from home," Magic center Adonal Foyle told the team's official Web site. "... We have played remarkable on the road but we have to protect our home court. Right now I don't think we are that great at home and we have to create that air of invincibility when people come into our arena."
Orlando's win to close the road trip was possibly its most impressive of the season - 123-117 in overtime at Golden State, which had won six in a row. All five starters scored at least 17 points for the Magic, who won despite blowing a nine-point lead in the fourth quarter.
"I told them (after) that I was impressed," Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy said. "I told them before the game if we win here tonight, it will be the best win of the year."
Dwight Howard, the Eastern Conference player of the month for November, matched season highs with 23 rebounds and seven blocked shots to help make up for his nine turnovers. He was held below 20 points for a second straight game, but scored four of his 18 in overtime.
Howard is scoring a team-leading 23.2 points per game while averaging a conference-best 15.1 rebounds.
He joins Rashard Lewis (19.1 ppg) and Hedo Turkoglu (18.5) to give the Magic one of the league's top-scoring trios.
Not one Pacers player has a scoring average as high as any member of that trio, but Indiana (9-10) is averaging 103.0 points to rank second in the East behind Orlando's 104.5 average.
The Pacers have been up-and-down in the first month of the season, but have had some key contributors miss time due to injuries. Ike Diogu has missed all but three games with a torn calf muscle, Marquis Daniels has missed four with a knee problem and Troy Murphy has sat out four due to a sore Achilles'.
Murphy was benched for the team's most recent game, a 121-117 loss to Phoenix on Tuesday, because coach Jim O'Brien thought he didn't match up well against the up-tempo Suns.
What would seem to be the Pacers' most critical injury - knee and shoulder problems that caused Jermaine O'Neal to miss five games - hasn't been. Indiana was 4-1 in his absence with impressive wins over Denver, Dallas and New Orleans. They've lost two of three since his return, though O'Neal certainly wasn't to blame for the Phoenix loss - he had 30 points and 11 rebounds.
"My knee is getting stronger," said O'Neal, who is averaging 14.9 points - down 4.5 from last season. "At least I'm getting back to where I can compete at the level that people are used to me competing at."
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