Denton: Magic Determined to Make Necessary Improvements

By John Denton
January 18, 2011


ORLANDO – The Orlando Magic are 41 games into this season, but most importantly 15 games deep with a new-look roster that has again energized hopes of playing for a NBA championship. So starting Wednesday, the 41 games and three months to follow are all about one thing: Playoff prep.

In the month since trading for Hedo Turkoglu, Jason Richardson, Gilbert Arenas and Earl Clark, the Magic (26-15) have shown their tremendous promise by stringing together a franchise-record-tying win streak of nine games, while beating the likes of San Antonio, Dallas and Boston. But even with the roster radically remade, the Magic aren’t without their flaws as shown during recent losses to playoff teams New Orleans, Oklahoma City and Boston.

For all of their potency as an offense and ability to play with any team in the league, the Magic have shown defensive holes and an inability to get out the gates quickly of late. That’s why head coach Stan Van Gundy left the locker room following Monday’s 109-106 loss to the rival Celtics not frustrated, but instead eager to get to work on his team’s issues.

Again, the next 41 games aren’t so much about winning and losing as they are getting ready for a proper playoff launch come mid-April. The goal is to be firing fully when the Magic meet Boston when it counts the most.

``The message now is that we need to be a lot better,’’ said Van Gundy, whose Magic host the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday night at Amway Center. ``We didn’t come out here (on the roadtrip) and get blown out in New Orleans or here (in Boston) and it’s not all bad. I’m happier with how we played the (Boston) game than we played in Minnesota (in a victory). We just have to be a lot better the rest of the way.’’

That was never more evident than Monday night when the Magic fought the East-leading Celtics for 47 minutes only to crumble over the final 60 seconds. In the end, it was a Celtics team that has been mostly intact for four seasons executing better at winning time than a new-look Magic team that has had only 15 games together.

Here’s the bizarre irony of the Magic-Celtics two-game series so far: Orlando struggled for long stretches of the first game on Christmas Day, but found a way to close strong and win; In Monday’s game, the Magic played well throughout and showed plenty of fight, but didn’t execute at the end and lost. Go figure?

``I think we’re still sort of building a team together. We’ve had 15 games now, but it still takes time to build an elite team,’’ said Magic power forward Ryan Anderson, who helped keep the Magic close Monday with 16 points, four 3-pointers and eight rebounds (five offensive). ``We just need to start games better and the defensive end of the floor needs to get a lot better for us. We can score with anybody, but when we rely on our offense we don’t always win. We have to get back to having a defensive mentality as a team.’’

Superstar center Dwight Howard smashed the Celtics for 33 points and 13 rebounds, but he didn’t block a shot. The two-time Defensive Player of the Year’s production on the defensive end of the floor is down in large part because the Magic can’t afford for him to get into foul trouble with their thin frontline. Howard said with better chemistry that will build over the next two months the Magic will be a better defensive team by the playoffs.

``That’s the plan, to try and get better every game the rest of the way,’’ Howard said. ``We’re playing for something bigger than these (regular-season) games, but we don’t want to take Ls along the way. We still gave guys who need to learn the system and we have to get better at executing down the stretch.’’

Rather than worrying so much about the end of games, it’s the beginning of them that most concerns Van Gundy starting with Wednesday’s game against the Sixers. Van Gundy has studied the numbers through the years and is convinced that more NBA games are decided in the first quarter than the fourth quarter. And of late, the Magic have trailed after one period in nine of the past 11 games.

Again, it’s another area the Magic are looking to improve upon over the second half of the season.

``We have to play the entire game and stop getting 10 points behind,’’ Van Gundy said. ``Either those guys have to take the responsibility or I have to take the responsibility to find a different group that will start better. And we have to defend. That’s everything from coaching to working in practice with schemes to finding people who will do the job.

``The players have to be realistic with what we’re doing … because this what we’re doing now just isn’t going to cut it (in the playoffs).’’

John Denton writes for OrlandoMagic.com. E-mail John at jd41898@aol.com. Submit a question to John for his mailbag segment at AskJD@orlandomagic.com.