Denton: Magic Comfortable in Underdog Role

By John Denton
February 22, 2011

ORLANDO – With most of the basketball world aflutter in talk of Carmelo Anthony’s trade to the New York Knicks and rampant discussions about the remarkable talent and depth of the Eastern Conference, Dwight Howard felt the need to speak up on Tuesday in defense of his Orlando Magic.

Despite being overlooked by some as championship contenders come playoff time, Howard feels his Magic will still flex their considerable muscles come playoff time.

Of course, the Magic (36-21) still have 25 regular-season games to go – starting with Wednesday night’s game against Sacramento at Amway Center – but in time Howard feels the Magic will be a team to be reckoned with come the postseason.

``We’re always the underdog. According to everybody else, we have no chance to win a playoff series. Each year we’re in the playoffs, they say that,’’ Howard said semi-disgustedly. ``We weren’t supposed to get out of the first or second round last year. We’ve always been the underdogs, but that’s not going to stop us from playing. We know what kind of team we are and teams still have to play us. We might not get the respect from the media, but teams respect us and that’s all that matters.’’

The Knicks’ acquisition of Anthony, veteran point guard Chauncey Billups and Corey Brewer was the talk of the Magic’s post-practice discussions on Tuesday. With the Magic currently in fourth in the Eastern Conference and the Knicks sitting in sixth, a potential Orlando-New York showdown in the playoffs could materialize if the Knicks jump fifth-seeded Atlanta or the Magic zip past third-seeded Chicago.

Magic shooting guard Jason Richardson said his squad has come back after the NBA All-Star break with a sense of purpose and eager to prove that this team is one of the elite squads in the Eastern Conference. And Richardson said that if the media and others wanted to overlook the Magic, that’s just fine with him as well.

``To us, we don’t care what the talk is; they can talk about whoever they want to in the East, but as long as we’re there in the conference finals and the NBA Finals, that’s all that really matters,’’ Richardson said. ``Let them keep talking about everybody else. We’ll come from behind and take an underdog mentality. They can not talk about us and then the next thing you know we are right there.’’

Anthony’s arrival in New York should make the Knicks one of the most potent, high-scoring teams in the NBA in Mike D’Antoni’s run-and-gun system. Knicks power forward Amare Stoudemire already ranks second in the league in scoring at 26.1 points per game, while Anthony is sixth at 25.2 points a night. Both players demand the ball a lot, and doling it out could come down to the 34-year-old Billups, who is still an elite player averaging 16.5 points and 5.3 assists a game.

But opinions vary as to whether New York’s trade makes the Knicks a legitimate title contender in the East because of their lack of size inside and defensive grit. But there is no questioning New York’s level of firepower now with Anthony and Stoudemire forming one of the game’s best one-two punches.

``They definitely have two of the best scorers in the league now and they have a great veteran, playoff-tested point guard in there (in Billups), so there’s no question that things change for New York,’’ Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said. ``They go from being a good, young team without a lot of playoff experience to one where they have guys who have been around and in playoff series. There’s no doubt that the whole makeup of their team changes now.’’

Another big change over the past few years has been the influx of talent to the Eastern Conference. For years, the Eastern Conference was seen as the inferior league as the Lakers and Spurs combined to win nine championships over a 12-year period since the 1999 season.

But the change started with No. 1 overall draft picks LeBron James, Howard, Andrea Bargnani and Derrick Rose ending up on Eastern Conference squads. And the East’s growth was aided by star players such as Stoudemire, Anthony, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Carlos Boozer, Joe Johnson, Elton Brand, Stephen Jackson and Orlando’s Richardson defecting from the West to Eastern Conference squads.

``We all knew this was going to happen. When I first got here and when LeBron got (to Cleveland), we were all young guys and it took time for us to grow,’’ Howard said. ``They used to call us in the East the JV (junior varsity) of the NBA. I don’t think we’re that anymore; I think we’re the varsity now.’’

John Denton writes for E-mail John at Submit a question to John for his mailbag segment at