Denton: Action-Packed Week Starts With Revamped Knicks

By John Denton
February 28, 2011

ORLANDO -- Depending on the way the final six weeks of the NBA’s regular season play out, the Orlando Magic could conceivably face a Murder’s Row of New York, Miami and Chicago in the playoffs just to get out of the Eastern Conference.

Conveniently enough, the Magic’s next three games are against … wait for it … the Knicks (Tuesday in Orlando), Heat (Thursday in Miami) and Bulls (Friday at the Amway Center), offering up what might be a playoff primer of sorts.

Orlando (38-22) is currently fourth in the Eastern Conference and it’s conceivable that the new-look Knicks (30-27) with Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups joining Amare Stoudemire could surge past the Atlanta Hawks (36-23) for the fifth seed and face the Magic in the first round of the playoffs. Of course, the Magic could play a major role in the Knicks’ plight considering that Tuesday night’s game will be the first of three remaining Orlando-New York battles. (The March 28 game in New York was rescheduled on Nov. 2 after Madison Square Garden was deemed unplayable).

The Magic could play the hated Heat (43-17) in the second round of the playoffs if they climb to the third seed and Miami remains in second. And finally, it’s not inconceivable to envision Chicago (40-17) snagging either the first or second seeds in the East with a strong closing kick from Most Valuable Player frontrunner Derrick Rose.

``It’s a tough stretch we have coming up with these three teams, but if we want to be considered championship contenders, we have to be ready to win these games,’’ Magic guard Jason Richardson said. ``We haven’t played well against some of the top teams this season, but this is our chance to show everybody that we’re still contenders to win the championship.’’

The Magic put concerns over a midseason dry stretch against elite teams to rest of late with big home victories against the Los Angeles Lakers and Oklahoma City Thunder. At one point in mid-January and early February, the Magic dropped seven straight games against teams with winning records. Included in that stretch was a home loss to Miami in which LeBron James scored 51 points and a second-half meltdown in Chicago against the Bulls.

Memories of those losses have superstar center Dwight Howard eager for his Magic to prove that they are ready for the white-hot glare of the postseason even though the calendar has just turned to March.

``I think we owe the Bulls a game and we owe the Heat too. And New York is the team that everybody says now is going to be one of the contenders, so we have to show these teams what we can do,’’ said Howard, who was named the Eastern Conference Player of the Week on Monday for the sixth time this season. ``But we just have to play. Sometimes when we try to get into the whole showing a team up thing, we don’t tend to play well. But we just have to go out there and play the way we know how to play.’’

The Knicks come into Orlando surging after beating the Heat in dramatic fashion Sunday night in Miami. Anthony, who was acquired last week in the blockbuster trade with Denver, scored 29 points and grabbed nine rebounds. And Billups was a star down the stretch with seven points and two steals in the final two minutes of the game. And Stoudemire save the win by swatting a LeBron James’ layup attempt in the final seconds.

``It will be their third game together and they will probably be looking different and better every time they go out there together,’’ Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said.

``You’re talking three great people they are built around. It’s funny to me when they talk about the `Melo Deal,’ and it’s like Chauncey Billups is an inconsequential player or a throw-in in the deal. My gosh, the guy is one of the most successful point guards we’ve had in this league in the last decade. He’s still playing at an extremely high level. They got back two great players in that trade and they’re going to be a great offensive team. But there’s more to it than that and we’re just going to have to see how it all comes together.’’

John Denton writes for E-mail John at Submit a question to John for his mailbag segment at