Shades of heart, shades of hustle


The last two games have been fun in a season that, frankly has not been fun.

This season has been a miserable ride through the mud as the inner workings and madness of the Magic’s front office in the midst of the Dwight Howard trade saga has played out for the world to see. It has been hard to watch and even harder to get through.

In it all, the Magic survived, rising to the third seed in the Eastern Conference for a good chunk of the year despite some uneven play and all the distractions surrounding the team. Orlando has persevered through it all.

A five-game losing streak and a rash of injuries — most notably to Hedo Turkoglu and Dwight Howard and less notably to Glen Davis and J.J. Redick — brought Orlando back down to Earth some and revealed a lot of the intangible problems with the team that were simply not correcting themselves.

Stan Van Gundy warned about it all year that the team needed to bring a more consistent energy to games and to play with a higher level of effort. This was evident from watching the team. They were good, but could be so much greater. And they could be bad too if they were not careful.

This was a team that seemed drifting around going from peak to valley in a heartbeat.

The piling on of injuries seemed to make things worse. Something was discovered in all the adversity. Deep down, this team had a ton more fight in it then it let on in uninspired performances against New Orleans or against Washington and Charlotte. This was a team with great potential, a little bit of positive stubbornness and a never-say-die attitude.

The Magic’s supporting cast had been fighting criticism from outside and from within as the franchise has fallen off its championship pedestal the last two years. In the last two games, woefully undermanned and still clawing for playoff positioning, the Magic have found an identity at long last.

And it is a familiar one.

As I watched Monday’s win over the 76ers, which all but assured the Magic at least the sixth seed in the Playoffs, I had numerous people tell me the scrappy squad of unheralded players never given a shot (it seemed) reminded them of the 1999-2000 Heart and Hustle team.

There was no denying the comparison in some respects. The Magic squad that finished the game in Cleveland and won the game against Philadelphia was incredibly scrappy with guys nobody had ever heard of stepping into larger roles and thriving. Sunday was Daniel Orton‘s day to shine as his defense was key to blowing the game open. Monday was Earl Clark‘s as Philadelphia left him open and allowed him to shoot uncontested long-2s. That is normally the strategy against Clark, but he made them time and time again.

There were warm, glowing feelings coming out of that game and you could see the pride at the energy and effort level from his team in Stan Van Gundy after the game:

“If you’re a Magic fan and didn’t enjoy tonight, then I don’t understand it,” Stan Van Gundy said after Monday’s win (h/t Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel). “Our guys gave everything they had.”

What has been the difference for Orlando? It has been a little bit more heart and hustle. Not quite like the 2000 team — after all Jameer Nelson and Jason Richardson can put up a whole bunch of points in a hurry if given the chance — but moreso than before.

It was a sense of urgency and energy that really seems to be the difference now. The Magic know their backs are against the wall without Dwight Howard in the lineup and that ramps up the pressure and ramps up the responsibility. More than anything, guys are stepping up and playing with a lot to prove.

This group has had a lot to prove all season and has shrunk some from that spotlight. Now, for whatever reason, a lot of players are playing at a very high level.

It is not a large sample size, but since Howard’s injury was aggravated against Dallas, Orlando has an average offensive rating of 106.9. The team’s season average is 102.2. This is precisely what Stan Van Gundy has observed. The Magic’s offense has been better with Howard in an out of the lineup (mostly out) for the moment.

The defense has been significantly worse though — 106.4 defensive rating the last nine games with a season average of 100.9. And this is where the Magic will need Howard when the Playoffs start.

Tonight’s game represents the first real challenge for the Magic since Dwight Howard and the Magic disocvered the true severity of his injury. Against a team like Boston, mere heart and hustle probably will not be enough.

Then again, the 76ers were the best defensive team in the league and the Magic hung 113 points and a 125.6 offensive rating on them.

And that is what is great about this team right now, and what makes them potentially like that endearing Heart and Hustle team. They have captured that never-say-die attitude and have played together in a way that has not happened before. The team is moving off the ball and running multiple pick and rolls. More importantly, the team’s turnovers are down.

The question is: will this new style of play continue? And more importantly: will this play continue when Howard returns?

Carrying over this new-age heart and hustle will be key to any playoff run. But now comes the tough part for this team. Coming in and playing like this every night when it is expected of them against difficult opponents. Boston, Utah and Denver are in the heat of Playoff races as is the team’s finale in Memphis next week.

There are shades of that unheralded team in this new version playing without its superstar player and other key guys. Now we will see if heart and hustle is enough for this stretch run to salvage some good feeling from this season.