Magic's Recent & Upcoming Matchups a Playoff Preview?
By John Denton
March 12, 2012
ORLANDO – It’s never too soon to start thinking about the playoffs, especially in this frantic lockout-affected season where the games are coming at a hurried pace and the postseason will be here in slightly more than a month.
So with thoughts of the postseason already in mind, consider this:
- In their current position, the Orlando Magic sit third in the Eastern Conference with a stellar 27-15 record. Indiana (23-16) and Atlanta (24-17) are in a virtual tie for fifth and sixth, meaning if the playoffs started today the Magic would open against either the Pacers or Hawks. That’s relevant because the Magic just thumped Indiana on Sunday night, their third defeat of the Pacers in four tries.
- If the Magic remain in the third seed and win in the first round of the playoffs, they could be on a collision course with the rival Miami Heat. So far, the Magic and Heat have split the two meetings with each team winning handily on its homecourt. The two collide again Tuesday night at the Amway Center, and the fourth and final meeting comes Sunday night in Miami.
- If the Magic were to stay in the third spot, beat Indiana in the first round and pull off a major upset against Miami in the second round – a lot of ifs indeed – their Eastern Conference Finals would likely be Chicago. Again, that’s relevant because the Magic made all the plays down the stretch last Thursday to defeat the Bulls and announce themselves as true contenders in the Eastern Conference. A rematch against the Bulls comes Monday at the Amway Center.
- And while we’re playing the hypothetical game, the Magic’s opponent following the Heat – Wednesday night in San Antonio – could serve as a Finals preview if Orlando can navigate its way through the playoffs.
The point is that Orlando has already whipped Chicago and Indiana and now comes a taxing back-to-back against Miami on Tuesday and San Antonio on Wednesday.
The Magic were well aware that this would be one of their most grueling stretches of the season, and if they can fare well the next two nights it could say a lot about the team’s legitimacy as a contender.
``We’re a good team and our record shows that,’’ Magic co-captain and point guard Jameer Nelson said. ``Sometimes our effort and intensity goes down and we can’t do that, especially against the good teams. We’re playing a lot better now, but we can get even better in terms of playing with more effort and intensity and not having those lulls.
``Really, we just can’t be worried about what’s going on in anybody else’s locker room with these teams that we’re playing,’’ Nelson continued. ``We want to get better and get prepared for the playoffs, but right now it’s just about playing one game at a time and playing the best game that we can that night.’’
It might take the Magic’s best effort to beat Miami (31-9), which has won three games in a row and eight of the last 10. Heat small forward LeBron James is a leading candidate to win the MVP award what with him ranking third in the league in scoring (27.7 ppg.), fourth in field goal percentage (55.2 percent) and 13th in assists (6.6). he had just 15 points (on 5 of 15 shooting) in the Magic’s win in Orlando, but rebounded with 25 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists in the Heat’s win in Miami on Feb. 19.
And then there’s Miami guard Dwyane Wade, who has given the Magic fits through the years with his ability to put up points in bunches. He scored 33 points in Orlando by making 15 of 24 shots and poured in another 27 points on Feb. 19 in Miami by hitting 13 of 23 shots. Many of those shots were point-blank looks Wade got by beating the Magic back down the floor.
Leave it to Dwight Howard, the only person ever to win three straight Defensive Player of the Year awards, to talk about the key to beating the Heat – defense.
``It’s defense. Against those guys you just have to get back because you can’t allow LeBron and D-Wade to get those long, run-out passes for easy baskets,’’ Howard said. ``We have to do a good job of containing their Big Three. It’s all about defense because that’s how we got the lead on them last time we beat them. We played a complete game against them last time, but it always starts on the defensive end. Miami is really balanced and we have to put the defensive clamps on them.’’
Of course, much of Orlando’s success in the playoffs against teams like Indiana, Miami and Chicago depends on whether or not Howard is still a part of the team after Thursday’s trade deadline. Howard is at the center of the NBA’s rumor mill these days, but the Magic seem intent on hanging onto their star center in an attempt to convince him to stay in Orlando for the long term.
Even Howard sounds like he knows he’ll be in Orlando at least through the playoffs. He said that while beating teams like the Pacers, Bulls and Heat now is nice, it’s doing so in the playoffs that will matter the most.
``We just want to continue to get better. Each game is different and we want to be hitting our peak at the right time,’’ Howard said. ``We just want to make sure heading into the playoffs that we’re playing our best basketball. It’s great to beat those teams now, but we want to beat them when it counts.’’
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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