There are many distinguishing features to the Stan Van Gundy-era Magic. The 3-point shooting is the obvious one that most of the national media cling to and point out as Orlando’s reason for success.
The more subtle reason for the Magic’s sudden rise to the cream of the crop in the NBA is how Orlando plays on the road. And it can be argued that so far Orlando’s road struggles are one of the big differences between feeling good about where the team was at last season to the unshaky ground the team seems to be standing on now.
Orlando is currently 11-8 away from Amway Arena as the team gets set for a four-game West Coast road swing, the longest remaining road trip on the schedule, starting tonight in Sacramento.
That mark is not comfortably close to the pace of the 27-14 mark the team has had the past two season. That would mean the Magic would have to go 16-6 in their remaining road games to match the previous two seasons. Achievable, but not entirely realistic. Orlando was 14-5 the past two years after 19 road games. So they are relatively far off the pace of the two most successful road seasons in franchise history.
So what is the difference between the road dominance of the past two years and the recent road struggles — Orlando has lost six of its past seven road games dating back to the last West Coast trip?
First, the obvious answer, all the new faces. The Magic are undoubtedly still adjusting to all the new parts to their team. Vince Carter has not quite fit in and the whole lineup has not been together. What made the teams of the past two seasons successful was that they had mostly been together for a long time and new how to play with each.
With the exception of Rashard Lewis, every key piece had been with the Magic and playing together for three years. Hedo Turkoglu, Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson all joined the Magic in 2004 and I think it is pretty safe to say they knew where each other was going to be on the court.
Second, less subtly, the pressure. Magic fans — and players — have talked a lot about the pressure the team has been under this year. Orlando could sort of fly under the radar the last few seasons and really band together if things got tough on the road.
Now, well, teams are giving Orlando its best shot. The target is squarely on the Magic’s back and like with the new players, it has been an adjustment for the returning and the new players to prepare for every team’s best. That is what championship teams have to be prepared for. There is definitely a different feel to the atmosphere of the game when you arrive in the building and the team knows this might be its one shot to take down the conference champs on its home floor.
The numbers during this recent stretch of road games have been pretty horrendous too. In the last four road games, Orlando is shooting 40.4 percent from the field and giving up an average of 99.0 points per game. Those lead to losses no matter how you slice them.
The stats have not been pretty and Orlando Pinstriped Post went into further details last week while Orlando was in the midst of its struggling road trip.
But there is always light at the end of the tunnel. The law of averages said Orlando would not continue its road dominance. It is somewhat unrealistic to think the Magic were going to come out and win every road game or win at the rate they were. It is just too difficult, especially with all the above factors.
However, it is still a very successful road record. Orlando is not going to win 60 games with it, but the team can still expect to win more on the road than it loses. That is a powerful statement in the NBA.
More importantly for the state of the team though, the remaining road games tell us a lot about the team we have. This being the last West Coast road trip, we will once again learn a lot about the 2009-10 Orlando Magic.
In their first West Coast swing, the team struggled to a 2-2 record with disappointing defeats in Utah and Phoenix to close the trip. This trip figures to be much more difficult as three of the four teams Orlando faces has a winning record — and I think we can all agree Sacramento is no pushover (at least not what we thought they would be at the beginning of the season). Depending on your mode of thought after the recent four-game losing streak and the blowout win of Atlanta (who beat Boston for the third time of the season Monday), that could be a good or a bad thing.
Last year, the Magic used the final West Coast swing to bolster their confidence heading toward the All Star break. It was at this point of the season that Orlando began a four-game road swing that saw the team defeat division leaders San Antonio, Denver and Los Angeles (Lakers).
The Magic have the chance to make a similar statement on this trip with visits to Portland, Denver and Los Angeles (Lakers). It would be nice to see the road warriors return and re-establish that part of Orlando’s identity. It would surely instill the confidence both the team and the fans have been lacking for the last few weeks.