Mo Williams looked at the sea of Media members, an officious band-aid draped across his face, and openly complained that the Magic were playing dirty. LeBron James, too, said things were getting a little rough in Orlando. Ah, what a breath of fresh air. This Magic team has been too nice, too playful, too soft for far too long. They’ve always been a bunch of nice guys who didn’t like contact and didn’t like confrontation. Their leader, Dwight Howard, was far too busy smiling and joking around to be an enforcer. Not anymore – things have changed. Howard is the league’s newest bad-boy, drawing ire for his knack for technical fouls and already serving a one-game suspension for throwing an elbow. Dwight’s still the same old nice guy, but he’s finally sticking up for himself and not letting others get in his head or in his way. And it’s not just Howard. Rafer Alston served a suspension for retaliating to an Eddie House elbow, and Hedo Turkoglu is one technical behind Howard. Anthony Johnson has thrown two elbows at Mo Williams (allegedly). People around the league are noticing, too. It’s hard to believe I wrote this back in late January:
No one on the Magic, not even the big man in the middle, likes contact. While the Celtics initiate contact and play through the whistle, the Magic spend half their energy complaining to the referees. How many times have we seen a Magic player get stripped of the ball, then turn to the ref and put his hands up in protest? Yes, the Magic are one of the most talented teams in the league. They have a core of players and a strong coach that will carry them to a top-3 seed and at least the second round of the playoffs. If the Magic want to have any further success in the playoffs, they have to toughen up. Don’t complain to the refs. Take the ball to the rim. Don’t allow any easy buckets, and protect the paint. When’s the last time a Magic player laid into an opposing player going to the rim? Earlier this year, Brian Cook took down Baron Davis because Dwight had just been fouled hard. The Magic need more of that. The Magic are so close to being a championship-caliber team. All they need is a little mean streak.
The Magic are that team no more. They’re not dirty, they’re not cheap – they’re tough. You can only push someone so long before they push back. And Orlando’s ability to push back has them staring the NBA Finals right in the face.