Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
When the Orlando Magic defeated the Miami Heat on November 24 by the score of 104-95 in front of a nationally televised audience and sold-out crowd at the Amway Center, these were two teams heading in different directions.
The win sparked a six game-winning streak for the Magic, which eventually pulled their record to 15-4 before the wheels fell off the wagon and general manager Otis Smith was forced to make two blockbuster trades on December 18 that brought Gilbert Arenas, Jason Richardson, and Hedo Turkoglu to Orlando. The loss put the Heat at 8-7, everyone was questioning how long head coach Erik Spoelstra was going to last on the sidelines, but a funny thing happened. Miami persevered. The Heat would win 22 of their next 24 games and in that stretch, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh began to mesh together. Injuries incurred by James, Wade, and Bosh have slowed down Miami a little bit in recent weeks. However, right now, the Heat are 34-14 and operating near full-strength — only Udonis Haslem is missing in action due to injury.
As for the Magic? Problems abound.
At first, the trades injected new life into Orlando’s roster and they were able to real off nine consecutive wins, which tied a franchise-record. Unfortunately for the Magic, they’re beginning to lose their way again. Recent losses to the Detroit Pistons, Chicago Bulls, and Memphis Grizzlies have revealed fatal flaws that have head coach Stan Van Gundy declaring that Orlando is not ready to contend unless they commit themselves fully to the defensive end. It’s safe to say that the roles are reversed when the Magic and Heat do battle once again on Thursday.
This time, Orlando is the vulnerable team and Miami appears ready to take advantage. Perimeter defense, as well as an interior presence defensively when Dwight Howard is out of the game, are holes that the Heat are more than ready to exploit with a three-pronged attack of James, Wade, and Bosh. Must-win games mean nothing to Van Gundy — someone notorious for dismissing the notion by saying that unless it’s worth two wins, it has no greater ramification than any other game.
That being said, even if Van Gundy believes it or not, the Magic are dealing with a must-win situation against the Heat.
Because it’s becoming harder to label Orlando as an elite team and championship contender, given that they’re dealing with issues that can be easily exploited by the likes of Miami, the Boston Celtics, and others. Howard may be in line to win his third straight Defensive Player of the Year award, but his capabilities defensively have been stretched far too thin and the Magic are paying for it.
Also, the perimeter attack for Orlando has short-circuited lately, with Arenas, Nelson, Richardson, and Turkoglu unable to play with any sort of consistency on offense. Many of the issues for the Magic are fixable, but it’s no guarantee they’ll be fixed.
A win for Orlando could quiet the dissenters in the short-term, providing a ray of hope that they can right the ship in time for the 2011 NBA Playoffs. Or a loss to the Heat, especially if it’s a convincing one, will only further discourage the Magic as they trek towards the postseason.