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The Magic Looks Legit

Jameer Nelson was getting dressed in the visitors' locker room at Verizon Center a few weeks ago when he compared his situation as point guard for the Orlando Magic to the red hot quarterback on the NFL's only unbeaten team.

"I got to Tom Brady this thing," Nelson said. "I got so many weapons."

Rashard Lewis, the Magic's new $118 million man, came walking out of the shower and Nelson said, "See, that's Randy Moss!"

Nelson pointed to Dwight Howard, who was sitting across from him. "That's [Donte] Stallworth!"

Nelson was asked who Hedo Turkoglu was. "[Wes] Welker," he said.

Keith Bogans, seated next to Nelson, looked up, anxious to hear who he was.

"Bogans?" Nelson said, pausing to think. "He's the kicker. He's Vinatieri."

Let me help out Nelson some: Adam Vinatieri is no longer a member of the New England Patriots. He's in Indianapolis. He won a Super Bowl with the Colts last season.

Yo, Dwight, this mouthpiece tastes so much better now that we're winning! I bet it does, Jameer. But why'd you call me Donte Stallworth? My bicep is bigger than him." (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

Nelson can be forgiven for his lack of football knowledge, especially since he is obviously more focused on directing one of the biggest surprises in the NBA this season.

The Magic (10-2) has lost once since it left Washington, and it remains the only team with an unbeaten road record (7-0) after defeating the New Orleans Hornets, 95-88, last night.

Orlando will probably see its road win streak come to an end Wednesday in San Antonio, but that wouldn't diminish what the team has been able to accomplish to this point.

It handed the Boston Celtics their only loss of the season on Sunday, becoming the first team to (somewhat) neutralize the unleashed from Minnesota Kevin Garnett. It also beat the Cleveland Cavaliers in overtime after Howard, a career 55.4 percent free throw shooter, nailed the two decisive free throws.

When the season began, I assumed that the Miami Heat would the be the greatest challenger to the Wizards for the Southeast Division, but right now, the division looks like it's the Magic's to lose (and it has nothing to do with the awful, pathetic, (insert negative adjective) start by the Heat). I know the Magic started at 13-4 last season only to finish 40-42, but the reason why I think Orlando will be around for the long haul this season is Stan Van Gundy.

He wasn't the first choice for the Magic (Billy Donovan accepted the job before running back to coach college kids at Florida), but he is the best choice for this team. The man can coach.

It was easy to forget about Van Gundy when Pat Riley stole the team from him . . . um, I mean, took over after Van Gundy stepped down for family reasons and led the Heat to the NBA Championship in 2006.

Van Gundy was listed as a consultant but he kept a lower profile than someone in witness protection. He still hasn't said much about how his relatively successful tenure in Miami ended. Riley stepped down in the preseason in 2003, thinking he had handed over a garbage team to his apprentice.

But after an 0-7 start, Van Gundy led the Heat into the playoffs as an unlikely fifth seed. In two full seasons, he made the playoffs both times and came within two minutes of leading the Heat to the NBA Finals.

Who are you, again? I'm Stan Van Gundy. Jeff works for ESPN. I used to be your coach, Dwyane. (Photo by Fernando Medina/Getty Images)

Van Gundy said he started getting the itch to return to coaching last summer, when Indiana and Sacramento, among others, came calling. "I was out for over a year and for the first 12 months, I wasn't itching at all. The last few months, I really started to miss it and wanted to get back to it," Van Gundy said. "I did feel that if I didn't come back this year it would be tough to come back later. The longer you were out, it would be hard, especially when people had some interest. If you say no to that, people start thinking that you're through."

Van Gundy, 48, is far from finished. With the Heat roster calcifying and Riley running out of ways to motivate that bunch (he recently threatened to suit up, bad hip and all), he might not feel so bad that he was pushed aside . . . um, resigned. I don't think Stan will have many "What if" thoughts when the Magic hosts the Heat on Saturday. The Heat is a beat down hooptie right now. The Magic is a Maybach.

"I love the guys I have on my team. We've got a long, long way to go and they know it," Van Gundy said.

Howard won't turn 22 until next month, but he has already established himself as the franchise. He signed a five-year, $85 million extension last summer, and his shoulders seem to be expanding right along with his bank account. Howard is having a monster season, averaging career highs in points (22) and rebounds (14.2), and the fans should reward him with an all-start (I love Shaq, but it's Howard's time now).

The Magic generated a few snickers when it grossly outbid itself for the services of Lewis, one of the league's better perimeter scorers. Lewis, who joined Orlando after spending his first eight seasons in relative obscurity in Seattle, said he initially felt pressure to live up to the contract, but is no longer thinking about that. "My signature is already on that contract. The ink dried a long time ago. I can't change anything about that," Lewis said. "All that I'm focused on is helping this team win some games."

What, me worry about being overpaid? (Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Image)

Lewis is averaging 21.4 points and proving to be the consistent scorer the Magic lacked last season. He said he expected to hear some negative comments about his deal. "People have doubted me my whole career. They doubted me when I came out of high school," said Lewis, who was selected in the second round out of Alief Elsik High (Texas) in 1998 and has gone on to become an NBA all-star.

Then, there is Mr. Brady. Nelson appears to be coming into his own this season, averaging career highs in nearly statistical category, including assists (6.6). He was comforted by receiving a 5-year, $30-million extension last month, but he is playing this season with a heavy heart.

His father, Floyd "Pete" Nelson, was discovered dead in the Delaware River in September. The veteran shipbuilder and tugboat repairman had been missing for two days. Officials later ruled the death accidental, but Nelson said he still has an empty feeling when he thinks about the man who shaped his son's athletic career despite some long hours on the dock.

"Some times I sit at home and think about him all day. While I'm court, I know he's with me and I got to continue to play my game and do the things he wants me to do," said Nelson, who wears wristbands in his father's honor that read "Family First." "Everything I do is for him and for my family."

Before last season, Howard said the Magic could "go all the way." He has since said that he was misunderstood. Howard hasn't made any bold proclamations about the Magic this season, but he is optimistic that Orlando can be one of the elite teams in the East.

"That's our goal. That's the kind of team we want to become, a championship-caliber team. Those guys are at the top of the East, we want to get there," Howard said. "We have the talent, we have the right coaching staff. It's going to depend on how hard we play as a team."

By Michael Lee  |  November 20, 2007; 7:30 AM ET
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