Preview of Magic-Knicks battle at the Garden

Dwight Howard looks to have a big night against the Knicks at the Garden

The Orlando Magic are in hot pursuit of the No. 2 spot in the Eastern Conference, and they may have a chance to seize that position with a marquee matchup later this week.

But in order to have that opportunity, the Magic will need to first complete a home-and-home sweep of the fading New York Knicks when they visit Madison Square Garden on Monday night.

Boston’s recent slump has opened the door for Orlando (51-18) to possibly finish in second place in the East, and the Magic have responded with victories in nine of their last 11 games.

They already beat the Celtics 86-79 in Boston earlier this month, and with the teams currently tied in the loss column, they may have a chance to move ahead of the defending champions when they meet Wednesday in Orlando.

But the Magic can’t overlook New York, even though the Knicks have lost four straight to all but extinguish their hopes of earning a playoff spot. Orlando had to fend off a late Knicks rally to earn a 110-103 home win Saturday night.

Rashard Lewis scored 27 points for the Magic despite dealing with tendinitis in his right knee. Lewis had averaged 9.2 points in his previous five games – more than eight below his season average.

“A lot of people got a lot of bumps and bruises and are fatigued and legs are tired, but you’ve got to get through it to try to secure the division and hopefully move into second place in the conference,” Lewis said. “Right now, we’re still playing for a reason.”

New York played Saturday without center David Lee, who missed his first game of the season with a similar knee problem. Lee, who is tied with Orlando’s Dwight Howard for the league lead with 54 double-doubles, hopes to return Monday.

“I only missed one game last year,” Lee said. “And I plan on making this the only one I miss this year.”

Still, the Knicks (28-41) are almost certain to miss the playoffs for fifth straight year thanks to their recent swoon, which has included lopsided home losses to New Jersey and Sacramento. The lowly Kings were 0-28 against East teams before a 121-94 win in Manhattan on Friday night.

New York’s last three opponents have averaged 115.3 points and shot 54.4 percent from the field as the Knicks have fallen 3 1/2 games behind eighth-place Chicago with 13 to play.

“We’ve got to go 13-0 if we want to win and make it to the playoffs,” Knicks guard Nate Robinson said. “But anything is possible.”

Robinson, who won the slam dunk championship by beating Howard in the final, had 27 points in Saturday’s game, while New York’s Quentin Richardson scored 33 points in his first start in 11 games.

Richardson scored 16 points in the first quarter – more than any of his previous 23 games. He was averaging 5.7 points on 30.5 percent shooting over that span while falling out of the starting lineup.

The Magic led by as many as 15 in the second half, but the Knicks trimmed the deficit to two in the closing minutes.

“We can by no means start packing it in,” Knicks guard Larry Hughes said. “We still have games to play. If we don’t make the playoffs, we still want to finish on a strong note.”

Monday’s game is the third of four meetings between the teams in a 45-day stretch. The Magic won 114-109 at the Garden on Feb. 25, and the clubs close the season series in Orlando on April 10.

TONIGHT’S KEYS TO THE GAME:

  1. Win the 3 point battle
  2. Keep Nate Robinson out the paint, he’s been lighting it up lately.
  3. Play strong physical grind it out defense

PREDICTION:

Orlando Magic – 108

New York Knicks – 96

PLAYER OF THE GAME:

Dwight Howard