The Other Side: Orlando Magic
Since the Washington Wizards last played the Orlando Magic on Jan. 6, the Magic has lost point guard Jameer Nelson to a season-ending shoulder injury, Dwight Howard has been dethroned as the slam dunk champion, and Shaquille O'Neal has eviscerated Magic Coach Stan Van Gundy by comparing him to a "broke GPS system" and claiming that the coach of the year candidate is a "front-runner" who will "panic" in the postseason.
Despite the mishaps, the Magic (47-17) has the fourth-best record in the NBA and the league's third-best road record (22-10). It still often gets slighted when it comes to teams mentioned as legitimate championship contenders. The Magic usually finds itself somewhere between fifth and seventh behind Cleveland, Boston, the Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio (even Utah and Houston get more buzz). Maybe it's because it has a roster with no players (other than Tyronn Lue) with championship experience. Maybe it's because Howard has yet to show the mean streak often required of champions. Or maybe it's because some believe Van Gundy really will panic.
But even after an impressive road win at Boston on Sunday, the same negative perceptions about the Magic remain. However, the Magic has been resilient without Nelson, going 11-6 in his absence. Orlando also trails the Celtics by just 1 ½ games for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. It also needs to win 13 of its final 18 games to reach 60 wins for the first time since 1995-96, when Shaquille O'Neal and Penny Hardaway lost to the 72-win Chicago Bulls in the conference finals. (The Magic won 57 games when it reached the NBA Finals in 1995).
The Magic has manhandled the Wizards this season, never allowing them to score more than 90 points in any of those contests. Orlando has won seven of the past 11 games in Washington. Here's what else you should know about the Magic as they prepare to play the Wizards tonight at Verizon Center:
1. The Magic Isn't Missing a Beat With Rafer Alston
The first seven games without Jameer Nelson were pretty rough, with the Magic going just 4-3. But General Manager Otis Smith wasn't willing to ride Anthony Johnson and Tyronn Lue into the playoffs. Smith acquired Rafer Alton from Houston at the trade deadline, signaling that the Magic hadn't given up on the season. Alston immediately brought a cocky swagger to Orlando, proven by his desire to wear the No. 1 jersey previously worn by Anfernee Hardaway and Tracy McGrady (What does a player have to do go get his number retired in Orlando?). The Magic has gone 7-3 with Alston running the point.
2. Stan Van Gundy Can Take AaHit
After Shaquille O'Neal tried to needle Dwight Howard, Stan Van Gundy mocked O'Neal for trying to flop when the teams met on March 3. Van Gundy was merely protecting the center he currently coaches, but the center who got Van Gundy axed in Miami took exception and blasted him. Van Gundy shrugged off the feud, possibly because he is a leading candidate for coach of the year honors. Van Gundy's assistant coach, Patrick Ewing, is quietly lobbying to return to the city where he had glory in college, rejoin forces with former New York Knicks boss Ernie Grunfeld and become the next coach of the Wizards. But for now, Chewing, um, Ewing is starring in this ridiculous Snickers commercial:
3. Dwight Howard Is Closing In on History
Shaquille O'Neal still refuses to surrender the "Superman" title, but Dwight Howard is putting up superhuman numbers. Howard, 23, leads the NBA in blocks (2.9) and rebounds (14) and is about to become the fifth player in history to lead the league in those two categories. The other four are Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, Hakeem Olajuwan and Ben Wallace. He is also about to become the youngest player to lead the league in blocked shots (besting Marcus Camby by a year). Howard has been struggling with foul troublel ately, which has forced Van Gundy to play backups Tony Battie and Marcin Gortat.
This adidas commercial below provides a "what if" scenario had Howard decided to go to college. In the ad, Howard is aligned with Kansas, which is based solely on the shoe deal, because I know that if he hadn't leapt to the NBA out of high school, Howard was set to go to North Carolina. And, being from Kansas City, I know that his "Rockchalk Jayhawk" chant needs a little work.
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