Denton: Magic Play the Role of Underdogs

By John Denton
April 27, 2012

INDIANAPOLIS – Orlando Magic captain Jameer Nelson and power forward Glen ``Big Baby’’ Davis know a thing or two about being underdogs. Nelson, a tough kid from the mean streets of Chester, Pa., grew up a too-short shooting guard in a point guard’s body. As for Davis, he had to battle through an unstable home life as a child and made the NBA despite being a 6-foot-8 post player.

Now, with their sixth-seeded Magic heading into the playoffs as prohibitive underdogs against the No. 3 Indiana Pacers, Nelson and Davis are doing their best to cajole their teammates into believing that Orlando can defy the odds and win a postseason series. After all, Nelson and Davis made it all the way to the NBA as against-all-odds underdogs, so why can’t the underdog Magic shock the basketball world by winning without an injured Dwight Howard?

``I like being the underdog. The underdog goes out there feeling like he has something to prove every game and that’s me,’’ Davis said. ``I’ve seen myself as an underdog my whole life because people never thought I’d be who I am today or that I could accomplish what I have accomplished. All my life I’ve been counted as the underdog.

``The only thing we’re missing right now is Dwight Howard. So the question is, `Can Glen Davis fill those shoes?’ Oh my gosh, I love that challenge,’’ Davis continued as he broke into a toothy smile. ``I love that feeling (of high expectations). Those are big shoes to fill and I think I can do it.’’

Despite losing Howard for much of the last three weeks of the regular season, Orlando still did what it took to extend its streak of consecutive years in the playoffs to six. That’s the best mark in the Eastern Conference, one better than Atlanta and Boston and two better than Chicago and Miami.

But winning against the upstart Pacers will be a daunting task for the Magic. Without Howard, the Magic lack their defensive anchor and the game’s premier low-post player. But the Magic changed their style of play down the stretch, going to more of a motion offense with multiple pick-and-rolls. And now that they are getting Hedo Turkoglu back into the fold, the Magic feel they have enough weapons to win in the playoffs – even if few others do.

``I think everybody has kind of counted us out, and that’s fine. That’s kind of what our identity is going to be in this series, and we’re going to buy into it,’’ Magic guard J.J. Redick said. ``We know that we have to play the game a certain way and that’s all that really matters. We have to play well and we have to limit our mistakes. If we do that we think we can win.’’

Game 1 is Saturday at 7 p.m. in Indianapolis, while Game 2 will be Monday at 7:30 p.m. The series then shifts to Orlando’s Amway Center for Game 3 (Wednesday, 7:30 p.m.) and Saturday (2 p.m.).

While acknowledging Indiana’s many weapons and distinct size advantage at almost every position and their own shortcomings because of Howard’s absence, Magic President of Basketball Operations/GM Otis Smith and head coach Stan Van Gundy said Orlando shouldn’t necessarily be cast as the underdogs in this first-round series. The Magic proved themselves to be a dangerous team down the stretch what with the way they played with great spirit and got contributions from all corners of the roster.

Ultimately, which team is the favorite and which is the underdog will be decided on the court, Smith and Van Gundy said.

``I’m not sure that we’re the underdog. When you line these two teams up I’m not sure if one team is the underdog or not,’’ Smith said. ``This year, more than any year, it’s anybody’s game. As long as we come out and compete we have a chance. … I like our guys. Our guys compete every night and when you do that you have a chance to win in this league. We’re undersized, but that just means we have to be a little better.’’

Added Van Gundy: ``I think our guys will go in there and play with confidence and I don’t know that we need to get a lot of fuel off the underdog stuff. They know if we play our game well we can win. But they also know we don’t have a lot of margin for error and we’re not going to win with a mediocre effort. But if we play our game and play well, we’ll have a good chance to win.’’

Then, after being peppered with questions about how the Magic can possibly guard the 7-foot-2 Roy Hibbert with the 6-foot-8 Davis, slow down 6-8 scorers Danny Granger and Paul George and match Indiana’s firepower without Howard and a returning Turkoglu, Van Gundy summed up the Magic’s plight succinctly, but perfectly. ``How do we deal with it? We just deal with it?’’ Van Gundy said. ``These are the guys that we’ve got and we’re going to go with them.’’

That group could include the likes of Earl Clark, Daniel Orton, Ish Smith, Justin Harper and DeAndre Liggins – young players who rarely saw playing time during the regular season, but could be pressed into action in the playoffs out of necessity. And of course there will be plenty of attacking from Nelson, shooting from Redick and Jason Richardson and Davis throwing his 290-pound frame around on the inside. And ultimately the Magic hope that it will be enough for them to defy the odds and win in the series as underdogs.

``One thing is we understand that we’re still a good team,’’ said a confident Nelson, the Magic’s longest-tenured active player. ``We know that people are going to put us as the underdogs because we’re the lower seeds, but the one thing we know is that if we stick together and play with the intensity and energy that we’ve been playing with, good things will happen for us.’’

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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