Denton: Big Test Ahead in Portland

By John Denton
January 10, 2012

PORTLAND, Ore. – When the Orlando Magic were outhustled and outmuscled last week by the Chicago Bulls, head coach Stan Van Gundy said that his team clearly was not yet at the NBA’s elite level.

That wasn’t just Van Gundy’s opinion because the statistics seems to back up the coach’s unprompted claim. At 6-3, the Magic have beaten six teams that missed the playoffs last season and had a combined record of 13-40 heading into Tuesday night. Of the three losses, two were against teams that reached the conference finals last season (Oklahoma City and Chicago) and the third was against Detroit when the Magic were playing their fourth game in five nights.

Dead ahead for the Magic on Wednesday night lay a challenge against a Portland team that has established itself as a perennial playoff team and one of the NBA’s most potent squads so far this season. For the Magic, the game against the Blazers is another chance to prove that they are still among the elite themselves.

``I think we still have something to prove. This particular group hasn’t beaten a great team yet. And I would say that the Trail Blazers are a great team,’’ Magic guard J.J Redick said. ``They’ve been a playoff team for the last several years and they appear to be very formidable this season.’’

At this point, it is worth repeating that the Magic have the third most regular-season wins in the NBA during the last four seasons. They also have the third most postseason victories during that same timeframe. They are just three seasons removed from being in the NBA Finals and just two seasons have passed since Orlando was in the East Finals. So the Magic know elite, and they are just eager to get back to that level this season.

``We’ve just got to go out and do it against the better teams. We’ve shown that we’re capable of doing it in the past,’’ Magic point guard Jameer Nelson said. ``So it’s just a matter now of getting the job done. This will be a good challenge for us.’’

The Magic have not fared well in Portland the past two seasons, losing 97-83 a year ago and 102-87 during the 2009-10 season. But this time around the Magic seem to have the schedule in their favor – something that isn’t often the case during West Coast trips. The Magic, 107-94 victors in Sacramento on Sunday, had Monday off and held a spirited practice at the Blazers’ facility on Tuesday. Meanwhile, Portland had to host the Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday night and will be facing the Magic on the second night of a back-to-back set of games.

Van Gundy said after the Chicago loss last Friday that his team had the desire to get back to the elite level, but it had to make progress defensively and on the boards to do so. Orlando rebounded the ball much better on Sunday and made most of the hustle plays down the stretch to get the win. But now comes a different test against a top-flight team.

``At times I see a focus that says we want to get there (to the elite level),’’ Van Gundy said following Tuesday’s intense, two-plus-hour workout. ``There are other times, I don’t know. Everybody wants to get there and be elite, but are we going to do what it takes? That is the question. At times, we’re making that effort and having the focus and at other times we’re not.

``Portland is a very good team and we’ll have to raise our energy level and our discipline level to play at the level that they play,’’ Van Gundy continued.

Portland is not only one of the NBA’s best home teams in the league, they are also statistically a much better team when playing in the noisy Rose Garden than on the road. They entered Tuesday’s home game against the Clippers 5-0 at home and just 1-2 on the road. Only the San Antonio Spurs (6-0) had a better home mark prior to Tuesday.

The Blazers are averaging 104.8 points at home, but just 89.3 points on the road. Their shooting percentage (44.8 to 39.8 percent), 3-point shooting (33.7 to 24.5 percent), assists (23.2 to 18.7) and blocked shots (7.2 to 4.0) are also significantly better at home than on the road.

The Blazers usually make life miserable on foes in Portland, but Redick said he actually enjoys the noisy environment in the Rose Garden.

``It’s a very tough place to play and a great crowd. It’s one of my favorite crowds because they really get into it and support their team,’’ Redick said. ``So it’ll be a tough game to win. And if we get this win, it’ll be a signature win so far, no doubt.’’

The splits between the Magic’s six wins and three losses are quite dramatic so far this season. Orlando is averaging 101.2 points in victories and just 83.3 points in losses.

The Magic are shooting 6 percentage points higher from the floor and 8 percentage points higher from 3-point range in wins than losses. Sharing the ball also seems to be a factor as the Magic are averaging 23 assists in the six wins, but just 12.7 assists in the three losses.

A big reason for the gaps, of course, is the difference in talent levels between the best teams and the worst teams.

``Part of it is how well we’ve played on those night and part of it is the level of competition,’’ Van Gundy said. ``Usually when you lose it’s going to be to the better teams.

The numbers are important, but they aren’t the end-all, be-all. I just know that it’s going to be harder to shoot 45 percent against Chicago, Boston and Miami than it is to shoot 50 percent against some of the other teams that we’ve faced.’’

Magic superstar center Dwight Howard admitted that he’s thought about the way Orlando has been beaten the past two times in Portland, especially last year with it coming a day after his birthday. He knows the Magic will have to play one of its best games of the season against a Portland team that includes LaMarcus Aldridge, a player Howard has already pinned for to make the NBA All-Star Game in Orlando.

``They play great here in Portland and they have a great fanbase,’’ he said. ``They move the ball and really run. They’ve beaten us pretty bad the last couple of years here, so we’ll have to be ready to go.’’

John Denton writes for John has covered the Magic since 1997 and recently authored ``All You Can Be’’ with Magic center Dwight Howard. E-mail John at

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