For the first month of the season, the Orlando Magic looked like the most improved team in the NBA. Since then, the Portland Trail Blazers have taken over that distinction.
The Trail Blazers look to continue their winter surge on Saturday when they visit the Magic, who are hoping to break out of a six-week funk.
The Magic snuck into the playoffs last season with a 40-42 record and the Eastern Conference's eighth seed, but were swept in four games by Detroit. After bringing in coach Stan Van Gundy and former All-Star forward Rashard Lewis in the offseason, however, the Magic appeared ready to make a leap in 2007-08.
Orlando (24-17) started out 16-4, but has since dropped 13 of 21 games.
Portland, which went 32-50 last season, seemed similarly poised for a breakout year before No. 1 overall draft pick Greg Oden was lost for the season with a knee injury. The Blazers (24-15) responded by dropping 12 of their first 17 games, but have bounced back with wins in 19 of their last 22 - a streak that began with a 13-game win streak Dec. 3-30.
The Blazers have cooled off lately, though, splitting the first four games of their season-high seven-game road trip to fall to 6-12 away from home this season. However, they overcame a seven-point fourth-quarter deficit to win 98-91 at Miami on Friday night.
The Blazers were outscored 35-19 in the third quarter, but Brandon Roy had 16 of his 24 points in the final period as Portland won for the ninth time when trailing at the start of the fourth.
"We had control of the game, and then we took a punch from them in the third quarter," said Trail Blazers coach Nate McMillan, whose team is the youngest in the NBA. "We were able to recover and win the game. That is part of the growth that we are starting to see."
Orlando was much less impressive down the stretch in its last outing. The Magic led by 19 early in the third quarter, but were outscored 56-31 the rest of the way to lose 99-93 at Charlotte on Wednesday night.
They struggled to run their offense after point guard Jameer Nelson left with a strained tendon in his right foot. Nelson is day-to-day.
"Our turnovers were mindless and mind boggling," Van Gundy said of his club's 19 giveaways. "You've got to be able to handle the ball. When you have a 19-point lead and a good veteran team that handles the ball solidly and makes solid plays and doesn't break down defensively, then you're probably going to win that game. But we didn't do any of those things. It's frustrating."
Dwight Howard had 24 points and 21 rebounds for his league-leading 36th double-double, but his performance was overshadowed by the Magic's latest second-half collapse. They've been tied or had the lead in the fourth quarter of five of their last six losses.
"That's been the story for us all year," Howard said. "We play hard to a certain point, and then we start relaxing."
Howard was held to nine points and 4-for-10 shooting from the field in these teams' first meeting Nov. 26, but the Magic won 85-74 behind 21 points from Hedo Turkoglu.
Roy was just 4-for-18 from the field and had 12 points in that game - the Blazers' fifth loss in their last six games against the Magic.
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