January 27, 2012

The New Orleans Hornets enter Friday evenings interconference game against the Orlando Magic trying to bring an end to a recent run of frustrating near-misses on their home floor. The Hornets have been extremely successful over the past half-decade at home, with single-season records of 30-11, 28-13, 24-17 and 28-13 from 2007-08 through 2010-11, respectively. However, the first few weeks of the 2011-12 campaign have been a much different story. For example, in the Hornets five most recent defeats in the Hive, they have lost by margins of seven, seven, six, two and two points. That stretch culminated with consecutive heartbreaking losses to defending NBA champion Dallas and four-time league titlist San Antonio. In both Southwest Division games, the Hornets had a chance to either force overtime or win in regulation, but came up short on shot attempts at the buzzer.

New Orleans goal of reversing its recent home fortunes doesnt get any easier on Friday, with Orlando making its lone stop of 2011-12 to Louisiana. This is also the only matchup of the 66-game regular season between the Hornets and Magic, who are off to an excellent start.

Orlando finished in the top four of the Eastern Conference standings last season and is currently vying with Miami and Atlanta for first place in the ultra-competitive Southeast Division. The Magic once again are relying heavily on the dominance of All-Star center Dwight Howard in the paint, as well as an array of dangerous perimeter shooters.

Intriguing matchup: Center, Emeka Okafor vs. Dwight Howard
Entering the 2004 NBA Draft, there was significant debate related to which of these two players the Magic should select with the No. 1 overall pick. Okafor was coming off leading UConn to a national championship, while Howard was a relatively unknown (at least among casual hoops fans) high school phenom from the Atlanta area. The Magic ultimately decided to choose Howard, who has helped make them one of the NBAs premier teams and led the franchise to a trip to the 2009 NBA Finals. Okafor and Howard are two of the leagues best rebounders and shot-blockers. Through Jan. 23, Howard ranked first in rebounding and fifth in blocks, while Okafor was 21st and 22nd in those same categories, respectively. Some of that statistical comparison is a bit unfair though Howard averages 38.4 minutes per game, while Okafor is at 28.6.


Starting in the 2011-12 preseason, the story that has threatened to overwhelm everything else surrounding the Orlando Magic has been the status of center Dwight Howard. With less than one year remaining on his contract, Howard has not signed an extension with the Magic, leaving his future uncertain. While Howard has given several recent interviews explaining his reasons for not wanting to commit long-term to Orlando, the Magic have continued to consistently win games as theyve done throughout the majority of Howards eight-year career. Orlando won 12 of its first 17 contests in the abbreviated 66-game regular season, highlighted by victories over Portland and the Lakers. The Magic are also just three seasons removed from reaching the 2009 NBA Finals, in which they were defeated four games to one by the Lakers.

Whats new
With a core group of veterans who are primarily on long-term contracts, the Magic did not make many major changes entering this season. The biggest acquisition was 6-foot-9 power forward Glen Big Baby Davis, who became a well-known name in basketball circles by leading LSU to a surprise Final Four appearance in 2006. Now in his fifth NBA season, Davis has enjoyed a solid pro career, particularly given that he was a second-round pick. In addition to Davis, the Magic signed veteran shooting guard Von Wafer, who provides scoring punch off the bench. Veteran free-agent signing Larry Hughes, as well as rookie Justin Harper, have only been used sparingly during the first month of the season.

Magic star
Although his uncertain future appears to be a distraction from the outside, youd never know it from watching Howard play one-fourth of the way into the 66-game regular season. The 6-foot-11 force in the paint is averaging a career-high 15.6 rebounds a game, along with 19.7 points. He ranks No. 1 in the NBA in several major categories, including rebounding average and free throw attempts. Largely due to his poor track record at the foul line, he set an all-time NBA record on Jan. 12 when he took 39 free-throw attempts at Golden State. The Warriors decided to intentionally foul Howard for large chunks of that game, but Howard foiled the strategy to an extent by going 21-for-39. He spearheaded an Orlando win by tying his career high with 45 points.

Magic on the rise
Fourth-year power forward Ryan Anderson is a perfect fit in Orlandos offensive attack. The 6-foot-10, 240-pounder capitalizes on the defensive attention drawn by Howard, connecting regularly on open jumpers. The 23-year-old is an early candidate for the NBAs Most Improved Player award, upping his statistical averages and shooting percentages in multiple departments. The Cal product averaged 10.6 points last season, the first time in his NBA career that he exceeded double digits, but hes bumped up his production to 16.8 in 2011-12. Thats good for second on the Magic roster, behind only Howard.

On the sideline
One of the most energetic and excitable NBA head coaches during games, Stan Van Gundy has led the Magic to a sustained period of excellent results. Van Gundy the brother of former NBA coach and current TV analyst Jeff Van Gundy has posted records of 52-30, 59-23, 59-23 and 52-30 in his four previous seasons at the helm of the Magic. In 2008-09, he guided Orlando to the franchises second-ever trip to the NBA Finals and first since Shaquille ONeal was a member of the squad in the 1990s. In Van Gundys previous stint with Miami, the Heat reached the 2005 East finals.

Did you know?
Orlando backup point guard Chris Duhon is a Louisiana native from Slidell. In an unusual coincidence, Duhon shares the same great-grandfather as Jarrett Jack, who grew up in the Washington, D.C. area but has numerous family members from the Pelican State.

Players the Magic want shooting free throws in a close game... If the Magic need a three-pointer, three of their best options are...
Name Career FT percentage (through Jan. 23)
Penetrates much more frequently than early in career.
Over 90 percent through first month of regular season.
Howard (57.7) drags Magic's team rate down to below average.
Name Career three-point percentage (through Jan. 23)
ESPN recently named him one of best 3-pt shooters in NCAA history.
Off to sluggish start, at 12-for-39 (30.8 percent)
A popular Orlando option in game-deciding situations.

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