Cohen Courtside: Magic vs. Heat (12/21/11)



By Josh Cohen
December 21, 2011


YOU SURE THIS WAS JUST A PRESEASON GAME?


ORLANDO -- By the time the third quarter was half way through in Wednesday’s preseason contest between the Orlando Magic and Miami Heat, you couldn’t help but forget that it was just a preseason game we were watching.

Based on the intensity on both ends of the court, the craving to win on each side and the vociferous crowd support throughout the Amway Center, the passion-packed battle between the Sunshine State rivals resembled a playoff war rather than a generally meaningless exhibition.

There even was a brief scuffle between Heat superstar LeBron James and the always-fervent Quentin Richardson. Glen Davis fired up the sold-out arena after one of his several outstanding plays – raising his arms and shouting something to the effect of, “That’s why I’m here!”

While both coaches enforced their habitual preseason rotations – which included frequent substitutions while limiting starters minutes – it was evident that nobody wanted to take a seat in this game.

In the end, resilience and a superb second-half effort from Davis, who finished with 18 points, allowed the Magic to overcome a 23-point first-half deficit and earn some redemption from Sunday’s loss in Miami.

Perhaps even more special about this triumph was the fact that during a stretch of about three minutes of the fourth quarter, a set of Ryan Anderson, DeAndre Liggins, Justin Harper, Larry Hughes and Chris Duhon outplayed the assemblage of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Mario Chalmers and Udonis Haslem. Pretty remarkable.

During the regular season last year, Orlando defeated Miami in a game after trailing by as many as 24.

It was an elating victory on Wednesday, undoubtedly, and one all the fans in attendance – despite it being just a preseason affair – will likely never forget.


EARLY PORTION OF SEASON CRITICAL


It’s become my most widespread message to the NBA universe: If the Magic are in first, maybe even second place, by the All-Star Break, talks of trading Dwight Howard or him leaving after the season could become obsolete.

Instead, the emphasis will be on Orlando’s quest to win its first NBA championship and, naturally, if that were to come to fruition, one would assume Howard’s desires would change.

If, on the other hand, the Magic struggle out of the gate and are a “rank-and-file” team, then one must suppose President of Basketball Operations Otis Smith will reevaluate Howard’s recent trade request.

Until that can become a consideration, however, the first 15 games of the season or so are critical to the attitude of Howard, his teammates and the entire organization.

Fortunately for Orlando, the early portion of the schedule is a favorable one. After its trip to Oklahoma City on Christmas Day, Orlando plays six straight games against opponents that did not qualify for the postseason last year.

Subsequently, many of the Magic’s first class adversaries will come to Amway Center rather than Orlando being forced to play in front of their raucous crowds.

Here is the goal that I propose as a pragmatic one: A 20-5 start to the regular season for the Magic and just like that, the focus in Orlando will be on championships and ascendancy, not potential trade possibilities.

Meanwhile, the support from the sold-out Amway Center crowd for Howard was splendid on Wednesday. The 6’10 perennial All-Star received an elongated standing ovation during pregame introductions and was cheered for every time he made one of his several outstanding plays during the Magic’s preseason game against the Heat.

Howard finished with 15 points and nine rebounds in 28 minutes. He will match up with a slimmer version of his familiar foe, Kendrick Perkins, in the Magic's first regular season game against the Thunder this Sunday.


EVALUATING STARTING LINEUPS


With the regular season just a few days away, it’s probably safe to assume every team is parked on an avowed starting lineup for opening night.

Especially for teams that did not make any drastic changes during this abridged free agency period, many teams will likely encompass similar first five’s as last season.

For the Orlando Magic, there will expectedly be just one difference in their starting lineup since Brandon Bass is no longer on the roster. Glen Davis will likely start, assuming Stan Van Gundy doesn’t deviate from his initial preseason rotations and unless Ryan Anderson becomes a mainstay as a starter like he was on Wednesday.

It’s complex to make assessments since all teams have played or will play just two exhibition games. But based on expectations, the Magic should feel at least somewhat comfortable with their starting assemblage.

Much will depend on Hedo Turkoglu and whether he can elevate his game back to where it was when he helped guide the Magic to the NBA Finals in 2009.

Also, it’s still ambiguous if Davis is a justifiable NBA starter. Remember, since his arrival in the league, “Big Baby” has always been Kevin Garnett’s substitute. It’s somewhat cushy to replace a future Hall of Famer when opponents are, generally, only preparing for the guy ahead of him in the rotation.

Other than that, with Dwight Howard manning the paint, Jameer Nelson superintending the floor and Jason Richardson expected to light it up from long range the Magic’s starting lineup is a reliable one.

There are, naturally, more talented starting lineups across the league. Orlando’s preseason opponent on Wednesday, Miami, certainly has one of the most gifted starting sets.

Here are some of the best starting lineups in the Eastern Conference. Vote below which starting set is most formidable.

TEAM
PG
SG
C
PF
SF
HEAT
Mario Chalmers

Dwyane Wade

Joel Anthony

Chris Bosh

LeBron James
BULLS
Derrick Rose

Richard Hamilton

Joakim Noah

Carlos Boozer

Luol Deng
MAGIC
Jameer Nelson

Jason Richardson

Dwight Howard

Glen Davis

Hedo Turkoglu
CELTICS
Rajon Rondo

Ray Allen

Jermaine O'Neal

Kevin Garnett

Paul Pierce
KNICKS
Mike Bibby

Landry Fields

Tyson Chandler

Amar'e Stoudemire

Carmelo Anthony



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HEAT STRONGER THAN LAST YEAR: After their disheartening finish in the NBA Finals, the Heat are poised to have a more dominant season this year.

LeBron James has noticeably implemented a post-up move to his arsenal and Chris Bosh’s added muscle to his physique will likely make him more of an intimidating inside presence.

MISSING AN ATTACKER: As it was last season, especially after trading Vince Carter, the Magic still seem to be absent of a perimeter player who is unrelenting in his willingness to attack the basket.

It’s no secret that Orlando has been seeking a guy who can penetrate to the rim and draw fouls. It will be interesting to see if Otis can acquire an asset with this type of aptitude between now and the trade deadline.

LIVE AND DIE BY 3-BALL: There is nothing clandestine about the Magic’s desire to launch at least 20-to-25 3-pointers a game. Considering their personnel – which includes 3-point machines like J. Richardson, J.J. Redick and Ryan Anderson and an inside presence like Howard who gets double teamed on nearly every possession – the Magic are dependent on the long ball.

And on Wednesday, we see how the 3-point arc is either the Magic’s best friend of biggest enemy. Orlando started 0-of-15 from long range before finally starting to heat up in the second half and finishing 8-of-27 from beyond the arc.


QUOTES OF THE NIGHT


PLAYER/COACH
QUOTES

Quentin Richardson
(On Glen Davis) "He's one of those guys that has a motor, just going to talk, talk, talk the whole game, just saying something to pump you up"

Dwyane Wade
"We should be very motivated by the opportunity that we have. We are going to continue to get to know each other a lot more as the season goes on. Time is always the best medicine for basketball."

Dwight Howard
"It shows a lot of progress from the first game to the second. First game when we got down, w stayed down. Tonight, we just kept encouraging each other."



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