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News » Magic in unfamiliar territory

Magic in unfamiliar territory

Magic in unfamiliar territory
MINNEAPOLIS -- The Orlando Magic are way ahead of last season's curve when they finished 52-30. They have tied the best 29-game starts in franchise history, recorded by Shaq's teams in the 1994-95 and 1995-96 seasons.

Only three teams in the league have better records: the Boston Celtics, L.A. Lakers and Cleveland Cavaliers -- all recent NBA finalists.

And now, after leaping to a 23-6 record -- the Magic were 18-11 at this time last season -- a 60-win season is possible.

Are we getting ahead of ourselves?

The bigger question: Are the Magic?

The playoffs are a good four months away. "I don't know if we are peaking," Coach Stan Van Gundy said. "I still see a lot of areas where we can get better."

Van Gundy knows his team can polish its offensive execution, make more free throws and rebound better so it doesn't give up second-chance points.

Magic General Manager Otis Smith believes it's critical for the club to be at its best for the postseason. He said he won't even be concerned about losing games during the marathon march as long as the Magic are playing "healthy Basketball."

Then again, front-office execs are big-picture types, looking more down the road.

Coaches such as Van Gundy largely don't look past tonight's game, which is against the hapless Minnesota Timberwolves.

"I've never understood that anyway, people saying, 'Oh, you're peaking too early,' " Van Gundy said. "So, as a coach, do I say, 'OK, guys, don't play as well today? We don't really want to play well right now?' I don't understand why you can't play well all year and well in the playoffs. That is what the better teams have always done. I mean, the Chicago Bulls won 72 and then won the title. I can't imagine them going 72-10 that they didn't peak early in that year, then kept it going."

Those historic Bulls had Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, proving to be one of the great teams.

The Magic of the Dwight Howard Era are still tasting what daily life is like as a contender.

This is the first season since the mid-'90s in which they truly have had the chance to build off a runaway successful season, to understand the consistency and commitment required.

They didn't have a blueprint to follow during the franchise's longest drought. After the '95-96 team captured a franchise-record 60 games, the most games any Magic team had won until last season was 45 (1996-97).

Van Gundy wasn't asked last December if his team was peaking too soon, if it would be at optimum speed for the postseason. It simply was making progress, just trying to reach the playoffs again under a new coach and a rising star.

Now, after a breakout 52-win season and having advanced past the first round for the first time since 1996, the Magic essentially are learning how you prepare for late April in late December. Seasoned contenders already know the drill.

"We're a lot more mature," point guard Jameer Nelson said. "We're trying to put all the pieces together. We're trying to just keep getting better every day at the things we do well."

Veterans are playing another season under Van Gundy, adjusting to new faces and trying to perfect their roles. Nelson is having a career season. Rashard Lewis is more comfortable.

Howard and the Magic have totally embraced the concept of defense instead of living and dying on 3-point shots. They're figuring it out.

"I think we trust each other more," Howard said. "We're learning what it takes to win a championship."

Author: Fox Sports
Author's Website: http://www.foxsports.com
Added: December 29, 2008


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