Getting to the All-Star break has been no smooth ride for the Magic.
What most fans thought would be somewhat smooth sailing featuring the league’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Dwight Howard, joining forces with the addition of scoring superstar Vince Carter and a healthy Jameer Nelson would be enough to waltz through an NBA season without so much of a hiccup. After last season’s fast start, it was hard not to think there would not be massive improvement.
Alas, no season is a straight line. As everyone in the NBA says at one point every season, this thing is a marathon and not a sprint.
The Magic seemed to be sprinting hard early in the season despite Rashard Lewis’ suspension and a rash of early season injuries. They got out to a 17-4 start as they headed for their first West Coast trip. Everything seemed to be rolling as on some nights, Orlando seemed like it was an offensive juggernaut.
As the season hit the December doldrums, the hot start seemed to be falling out as Carter struggled to get his offense going and the Magic re-integrated Nelson into the lineup.
Orlando had a four-game losing streak in early January and finished a West Coast trip 1-3. Questions abounded at that time as the team lost eight of 12 from Christmas (vs. Boston) to Martin Luther King Day (at the Lakers). In the Stan Van Gundy era, there has never been this large amount of losing.
Patience was the optimal word at this point as the Magic still seemed to be adjusting to their new toys both on offense and defense as the team slowly made its way back to full strength.
Patience was rewarded as Orlando has won 11 of its last 14 games to sit at 36-18 at the All Star break, good for second in the East.
It has been quite a bumpy road. But a lot has been accomplished in that time. Orlando won the season series against Boston, including winning both games at the TD Garden. The team also won three games — in convincing fashion, no less — against its chief competition for the division. The Hawks sit 1.5 games behind the Magic, but have that extra game to make up having lost the tiebreaker. Amway Arena has also become a difficult place to play. Orlando is 20-5 at home.
It would be nice to see the Magic play better against the Cavaliers and Lakers, but they will have their opportunities to get them in the second half.
All things considered, with all the turmoil that seems to surround Orlando, the team is in a very good position. The Magic proved last year (yes, this is a different team) they can win playoff series on the road. The second seed in the conference would be a good start for the postseason.
And anyways, championships are not won in December and January. They are won in April, May and June. There is quite some time before Magic fans really have to start worrying about every little thing.
Three Things to Watch For in the Second Half
Dwight Howard and Vince Carter
Unquestionably Orlando’s two superstars, they have both had their struggles offensively this season. As the last few games before the All Star break proved, these two players are turning up their play. Carter is averaging a career-low 16.5 points per game, but has 22.5 points per game in February including his 48-point outburst against the Hornets last week. Howard is averaging a respectable 18.0 points per game and 13.3 rebounds per game. He has 20.0 points per game and 13.2 rebounds per game.
The Magic quietly hung their hat on defense last year, boasting the top defense in the league. This year, the effort has been a little inconsistent with all the new players learning exactly what Stan Van Gundy is looking for defensively. Despite all that though, Orlando ranks fourth in the league in defensive efficiency, giving up 99.9 points per 100 possessions. A lot of that movement has been very recently as Dwight Howard has really stepped up his defense and everyone appears to be on the same page for the first time all season. Orlando should continue to improve here in the second half.
Race with Atlanta
It is pretty clear at this point that the Hawks are not going away. Orlando won the season series already, but that will not matter much if Atlanta somehow passes the team. Do not think that is an impossibility. Atlanta is 1.5 games out at the break and can get on another hot streak. This competition is a good thing. It should keep the Magic sharp heading into the playoffs and give them something to fight for in March and April. Playoff positioning is important and winning the division is an important first step to winning a title. The last time a non-division winner won the NBA title was the 2006 Spurs and seven of the last 10 NBA champions won their division. Hopefully this race will keep the Magic focused and playing well into the postseason. Orlando travels to Atlanta for the final matchup on March 24.