Denton: Magic Set For Date With Hawks

By John Denton
March 29, 2011


ATLANTA – This time a year ago, the Orlando Magic were a determined and driven basketball team, winning 20 of 23 games down the stretch and ultimately nabbing the NBA’s second seed heading into the playoffs.

Now, fast forward to this season, and the Magic are an equally driven team as evidenced by the recent five-game winning streak and a gusty overtime effort against New York on Monday even though they were down to just six available players by the final horn.

But the harsh reality for the Magic (47-27) with eight games to play is that they are locked into the Eastern Conference’s fourth seed most likely incapable of moving up or down. Orlando is 4 ½ games back of third-seeded Miami and a comfortable five games ahead of fifth-seeded Atlanta (42-32). Dead ahead is a first-round showdown against the Hawks, Wednesday night’s opponent at Philips Arena.

So unlike last season, there is little for the Magic to push for down the stretch other than personal pride and a desire to hit the playoffs with a hot hand. Hard-driving Magic coach Stan Van Gundy doesn’t find the scenario ideal, but considering the state of the Magic’s injury-riddled roster right now, he said his team will make the best of the final two weeks of the regular season.

``It’s not ideal. You’d like to have something to hold over our guys heads to play for, but you deal with the situation as it is,’’ Van Gundy said. ``With the injuries, it’s probably good in some ways where we are because there’s not the rush to get somebody back. You want to go into the playoffs playing well, but you don’t have to take chances. You hope that we can maintain a focus and go into these games with a sharpness and intensity.’’

The Magic had plenty of intensity Monday in New York even though they lost 113-106 to the Knicks in overtime. The Magic didn’t have Jameer Nelson (sprained knee), J.J. Redick (lower abdominal strain) and Quentin Richardson (back spasms) and then lost Chris Duhon (sprained right thumb) during the game. And when Dwight Howard, Hedo Turkoglu and Earl Clark fouled out, the Magic were left without backup at point guard, shooting guard, small forward or center.

Still, the Magic scraped to wipe out a six-point deficit in the final 1:20 of regulation and got a clutch game-tying 3-pointer from Jason Richardson. The Magic’s fatigue – four of five starters played at least 41 minutes – ultimately caught up with them, but for most of the night it was hard to tell which team wanted this win more – the skidding Knicks who had lost six in a row or a Magic team eager to sweep New York.

The way the Magic played, Jason Richardson said, is evident of the pride on this roster and gives a hint as to how Orlando will attack the mostly meaningless final eight regular-season games.

``When you’ve lost six in a row like the Knicks, you start getting hungry because starvation is kicking in,’’ Richardson said. ``That’s what New York had. They did everything possible to try and win. The same was the case with us. We were out there trying to do whatever was necessary to get a win. That won’t change with us.’’

Magic President of Basketball Operations/GM Otis Smith said there’s still plenty of focus left in his team because it is one that is still learning each other following the Dec. 18 trades that added Gilbert Arenas, Richardson, Turkoglu and Clark. Smith said this will be the first time in the playoffs for this particular Magic team, and the goal remains strong to hit the playoffs in mid-April playing with confidence and a surging momentum.

``I’ve said all along and I’ll keep saying it – it’s going to take all 82 games for us to know each other; we’re stopping at 75 (games) and thinking we have this thing figured out,’’ Smith said. ``We’re probably not going to have all of our guys together the rest of the way until the playoffs, but that’s OK, too. Getting to see some guys at different positions and in different scenarios will give us some new looks. We’ll be fine.’’

The Magic should have Nelson and Richardson back for Wednesday’s game in Atlanta. Both were up and down off the Magic bench most of Monday night, cheering on Orlando’s effort and interacting with Madison Square Garden’s trash talkers in the crowd. Both could have played had the game been a playoff battle.

The case for Redick and Duhon is trickier. Redick, Orlando’s best bench player all season, has missed nine games and could be looking at another two weeks of inactivity before returning, Van Gundy hinted. Duhon was unable to squeeze a towel at halftime Monday night and fears he might have suffered ligament damage in his thumb. Further tests should confirm or deny that by Wednesday’s tipoff.

With motivation in short supply down the stretch, the Magic will seek it out wherever they can find it. Wednesday it will come in the form of a first-round playoff preview against the Hawks. The Magic are just 1-2 against the Hawks this season, a direct contrast to last spring when Orlando swept Atlanta in the most lopsided four-game series in playoff history.

The first two meetings of the season came when the Magic still had Rashard Lewis, Vince Carter, Marcin Gortat and Mickael Pietrus on the roster. And the last time the two teams met – Dec. 20 in Atlanta – it was the first game after the trades for Turkoglu, Richardson, Clark and Arenas and the Magic had yet to even practice. Predictably, the Magic scored just 81 points that night.

As for Wednesday’s game, Howard said it’s never too early to send a message to a team that the Magic will most likely see in the first round of the playoffs.

``What we can take out of that game is a win and continue to do things the right way with consistency,’’ Howard said. ``I don’t think it’s weird that we’re stuck at fourth. The East is a lot stronger this year, but I still think we’re in a good spot. I’m confident that this team is going to be great 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.