Denton: Magic Continue to be Resilient Bunch

By John Denton
April 29, 2012

INDIANAPOLIS – Who knew that all the drama, dissension and distractions that the Orlando Magic painstakingly endured during what was a marathon of a regular season would pay off come playoff time?

But point guard and captain Jameer Nelson said on Sunday that a trying regular season not only strengthened the resolve of the Magic, but also forged an air-tight bond with the squad’s chemistry.

That closeness is one reason why, Nelson stressed, that the Magic didn’t wilt in Saturday’s Game 1 when the Indiana Pacers hit them with a 17-7 start in the first quarter.

And its why the Magic thrived down the stretch, wiping out a seven-point deficit with a clutch, game-closing 11-0 run that allowed them to win 81-77 in Game 1.

``As crazy as this year has been it actually prepared us for the playoffs. We’ve been through some crazy things and we’ve handled them well as a team and individuals,’’ Nelson said after the Magic prepared for Monday night’s Game 2. ``We have to continue to have each other’s backs, play for one another and not worry about what anybody outside our locker room says about us, good or bad. We have to stick together and there’s no reason to separate now.’’

The sixth-seeded Magic stole away homecourt advantage with their Game 1 win, and they can take another major step toward upsetting the No. 3 Pacers with a victory in Game 2 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. In Saturday’s four first-round games, the Magic were the only road team to win a Game 1.

Players and coaches alike talked about the need to push aside the complacency that invariably comes when a team wins Game 1 on the road. And Magic head coach Stan Van Gundy stressed that the Magic’s margin for error is small because they don’t have Dwight Howard and can’t afford to give away opportunities like Monday’s Game 2.

``That’s the biggest thing, fighting the thinking that we only needed one (win) up here (in Indianapolis),’’ Van Gundy said. ``For us, our margin of error is so thin that we have to give a maximum effort and hope that we can come out with four wins. We can’t give one away and assume that every time we come in the right frame of mind that we’ll win. We’ve had games at Utah and Boston where we played great and hard and we still lost.

``We’re in a different situation and we have to be aware of that because we’re coming into this series without our best player,’’ Van Gundy continued. ``Throw all of the numbers out the window. We have to fight our butts off and try to get to four wins. We got one and we’ve got to go after two. That’s all that matters right now.’’

With a healthy Howard in the lineup, the roles would likely be reversed in this series and the Magic would be favorites instead of underdogs. But the underdog role is one that the Magic have embraced after a rocky season that saw one incident after another arise.

Howard requested a trade prior to the season and that drama played out for months in each city that the Magic visited. Then, with speculation running rampant at the trade deadline over where Howard would play next, he shocked the basketball world by waiving the opt-out clause in his contract so that he could remain with the Magic.

Weeks later, Van Gundy publicly disclosed that Howard wanted him out as coach, a claim that the superstar center denied. After that, Howard injured his back on March 30, played just two games afterward and decided to have season-ending surgery in California last week.

In between all of the Howard drama, Glen Davis and Chris Duhon were briefly suspended for insubordination, Jameer Nelson battled through a concussion, Hedo Turkoglu suffered three facial fractures and Ryan Anderson and Davis missed stretches with ankle injuries.

But, as Nelson and Davis suggested on Sunday, those incidents forced the Magic to come together tighter as a unit. The team had to reinvent itself offensively, while also trying to stay afloat defensively without the shot blocking of Howard. The product of those struggles was the Magic becoming a tougher, grittier team that refuses to stop fighting.

``It’s crazy but we had to learn how to get hit this season and get back up and have resolve,’’ said Davis, who had 16 points and 13 rebounds in Game 1. ``We weren’t really paying attention to all of the stuff that was going on during the season and we thought it was crazy, but at the same time it was preparing us for moments like this. We struggled with it at times off the court. But if it doesn’t kill you it makes you stronger. That’s what it did for us.’’

The Magic were plenty strong when they had to be on Saturday in Game 1. They made just three of the first 15 shots and trailed 17-7 after 7 minutes, but rallied back to get within a point of the lead by the end of the first period.

Orlando surprisingly led 51-44 at the break and withstood a hard charge from the Pacers in the third quarter. And even when the Magic trailed 77-70 with 4:05 to play, there was no letdown.

A hard drive by Nelson, two clutch 3-pointers by Jason Richardson and two more free throws by Nelson allowed the Magic to show the basketball world that they can still win despite not having Howard.

``When we got down there was nobody who hung their heads at all,’’ Nelson noticed. ``Basketball is a game of runs and we know that. We knew we were going to make a run and then we made ours and won the game.’’

Following Sunday’s light practice – one that Davis participated in despite lingering soreness in his ankle and Turkoglu took part in despite issues with his protective mask – Van Gundy was asked about how winning Game 1 put the Magic in position to win the series. As a reporter was informing Van Gundy that 81 percent of teams that win Game 1 go onto win the series, the coach injected with a theory of his own.

``It doesn’t matter. The only thing I know is that … 81 percent and 63 percent and whatever, but I’ve got 100 percent. That’s the team that gets to four first wins the series 100 percent of the time,’’ Van Gundy said. ``The rest of it is all (junk).

``We got a win and we’ll need to play better (on Monday) because they will play better,’’ Van Gundy continued. ``We’re just trying to get to four wins. We’re not trying to make a statement or trying to prove the doubters wrong. We just want four wins.’’

John Denton writes for OrlandoMagic.com. John has covered the Magic since 1997 and recently authored ``All You Can Be’’ with Magic center Dwight Howard. E-mail John at jd41898@aol.com

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