By Josh Cohen & Dan Savage
This season has been one of mystery and intrigue for the Magic. Orlando was dominant in the preseason, managed to start the regular season 15-4, got slammed with a stomach virus epidemic, lost six of seven subsequently, completed two blockbuster trades, won nine straight and now have hit arguably their most significant road block of the year.
They hope a home contest against the Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday at 7 p.m. will be the start of a stretch far more successful.
Lacking defensive intensity and rarely demonstrating an ability to attack the basket, the Magic have become very one-dimensional lately. They have relied exclusively on Dwight Howard’s excellence in the low post and continue to be dependent on their 3-point shooting.
Against the Celtics on Sunday, the Magic were a dismal 3-of-24 from beyond the arc. Hedo Turkoglu, J.J. Redick, Jameer Nelson and Gilbert Arenas were a combined 0-of-14 from long distance.
“We lost focus defensively, we got frustrated with the offense, we got frustrated with different things,” Stan Van Gundy said after the loss.
Also a growing concern for the Magic is the health of Arenas, who Orlando acquired from Washington on Dec. 18.
Often limping down the floor and rarely ever showing an explosiveness that once transformed him into a three-time All-Star with the Wizards, Arenas’ knee obviously is not 100 percent. The Magic, as a result, will have to make a decision in the near future as to whether they need to rest Gilbert indefinitely until his knee is strong enough to allow him to compete at a higher level.
“I’m just trying to get a rhythm, over the All Star break I’ll get a chance to work a lot on my game and try to get my feel back,” Arenas said on Sunday.
On Jan. 19, the Magic astonishingly overcame a late fourth-quarter deficit to prevail. Jason Richardson and J.J. Redick each converted on four-point plays – one to send the game into overtime and the other to put Orlando ahead for good in the extra session.
While the Magic hope they won’t have to pull more “magic” out of their bag of tricks, they do expect to get back on track when they clash with the Sixers in Philadelphia on Wednesday at 7 p.m.
Similar to Orlando, Philadelphia has had a very fascinating season. It started a grim 3-13 and suffered many devastating defeats in unthinkable fashion. But lately, the Sixers have been playing with a purpose, winning six of their last eight and sitting in the No. 7 spot in the Eastern Conference standings.
"When we play, we expect to win," Head Coach Doug Collins said.
Unlike the last couple of seasons when injuries plagued his time on the court, Elton Brand has been playing stellar basketball lately. The two-time NBA All-Star is averaging 15.6 points and 8.7 rebounds this season and has racked up 33 and 28 points in his last two games.
"That's the player I wanted to be when I came here," said Brand, who joined Philadelphia in 2008 after signing a five-year $80 million deal.
Brand, though, isn’t the only one on the Sixers playing better. Andre Iguodala, who earlier this season was mentioned in trade rumors, has elevated his play over the last month or so. The seven-year veteran has scored in double figures in 11 of his last 13 games.
Tune in to Sun Sports starting with the pregame show at 6:30 p.m.
The Hornets got the best of the Magic in an overtime thriller back on Jan. 12, which snapped a nine-game winning streak for Orlando.
Marcus Thornton was an instrumental factor for New Orleans off the bench in that affair, notching 22 points and nine rebounds.
Emeka Okafor recorded 18 points and 14 boards, while Chris Paul added 12 points and 13 assists.
Their performances spoiled a solid comeback effort from Orlando, which used a 29-point, 20-rebound effort from Dwight Howard and a 21-point outing from Jason Richardson to overcome a seven-point deficit in the final minute of regulation and force an extra session.
“Jason Richardson and Dwight carried us and kept us close enough,” Magic Head Coach Stan Van Gundy said of that affair. “We played well down the stretch and made some big shots. We just kept fighting and we couldn’t make the plays in the end. It was tough from that regard. We didn’t play well enough or hard enough for long enough.”
Since that loss, the Magic have been unable to put together a winning streak longer than three games and have failed to play consistent basketball.
They’ll be looking to get a win not only to spilt the season series, but to once again prove they can defeat a quality opponent.
“(Right now) we’re not even in the same ballpark as (the elite teams),” Van Gundy added. “We can be, but we’re not right now.”
But after a seasonal start to the 2010-11 campaign from the San Antonio Spurs, the development of the Dallas Mavericks and a tough stretch for Los Angeles, many analysts are much less certain of the Lakers chances to earn a third consecutive championship.
With the Lakers attempting to sort through their struggles and once again rise to top of the league’s elite, they’ll definitely be locked in when they visit Orlando on Sunday at 3:30 p.m. ET in front of a national TV audience.
After winning just five of their last 10 games, the Lakers are eager to go on the road and right the ship.
“It's tough when you're struggling,” Los Angeles big man Pau Gasol admitted. “We're hitting the road, and we'll have an opportunity to get it together and get back on the right track.”
Although Gasol has put together an All-Star season, Lakers franchise cornerstone Kobe Bryant recently approached him about becoming more aggressive on the offensive end.
“I'm always in attack mode and it's my responsibility to recognize things on the team that can help us," said Bryant. "I felt like it was time to kind of have a talk with him and tell him it's OK to be selfish, because that's really what we need from him.”
The words of wisdom appeared to work.
After their brief discussion, Gasol came out and dominated New Orleans, notching a season-high 34 points to go along with 10 rebounds on Saturday.
The Magic will need to put together a diligent defensive effort to ensure that doesn’t happen again this weekend.
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