AP Photo/Charles Krupa
Ah, last week, ‘twas so very long ago. Back in those distant, sunnier times, the Magic were as foals, tottering around in the warming naivete of the new season, kicking their legs and just beginning to grasp their potential as thoroughbreds. It was in those carefree days that J.J. Redick told the Orlando Sentinel, “I like our team. We have a chance to be the best team I’ve been on in my six years with the Magic.” It was a lovely thought, the hopefulness of youth giving itself full, gilded voice until, on Monday night, the Magic played the worst offensive game of the franchise’s history. And now, a week after Redick uttered those charming, misguided words, we know in the harsh glare of hindsight that he might actually be right?
Readers of mine here at Magic Basketball will know that I have been wary of this team from the jump. Astute ones might even accuse me of severe, myopic grouchiness. I wrote at the start of the season that I didn’t think this team could surprise me. I wrote as late as last week that I still think the Magic are better off trading Dwight. My idea was that I was wisely insulating my rationality from my fannish impulses, and that years of organizational incompetence would force the other shoe to drop. I’m not writing today to fully reverse course — my pride prevents such a thing — but the past week has shown me some new things about this team, things I ordinarily don’t even look for as a viewer.
First, we have to discuss Monday night’s game. As one shot after another bricked off against Boston, I was watching with the same sort of morbid self-satisfaction an engineer might feel when he watches a shoddy bridge collapse. All of the conventional wisdom about the team seemed to be coalescing into a dispiriting beat down; I was prepared for days of internet commenters caps-shouting LIVE BY THE THREE, DIE BY THE THREE and talking about how this team isn’t tough because Dwight Howard isn’t tough, and so on and so on.
At around the third quarter, I was ready for every nonsense piece I thought I’d read about the next day, such as “Does Dwight smile too much?” or “Can Dwight ever play with enough of an edge to become really elite?” What I’m saying is, it was an emotionally fraught loss, because it seemed like the worst-case scenario we all could have seen coming was finally happening. The Magic were in a crowded part of their schedule, and the strength of the opposition up to that point had inflated the quality of the team. By the final horn, I was expecting that all of my worst predictions were coming true. But that’s the thing about this sardine can of a season. A single week contains about a twelfth of the team’s total schedule, and assumptions can be challenged pretty quick.
Tuesday night against the Pacers, the Magic did exactly what a team needs to do to bury a performance like Monday’s, and in this case, the schedule was a benefit. With three back-to-backs in a week, a team doesn’t have time to get in its own head, and a fan base doesn’t have time to establish enough narrative momentum to put real pressure on the squad. The Magic didn’t have three days to think about their loss, they didn’t have to endure a Twitter-stoning for a whole weekend, they got a shot to redeem themselves right away.
And when things looked bleak in the first quarter, with the Pacers hitting shots and Orlando’s defense looking porous, the Magic responded the way I’d hoped to see all season. Aside from the first quarter barrage, the Pacers were stifled on offense and unable to string together enough good possessions to ever threaten the Magic once the shots started finding the net again. Ryan Anderson immediately put to rest fears of a prolonged Monday hangover, Hedo racked up eight assists, and all was once again well.
What I took from that game is that the Magic are possessed of a toughness and chemistry I would never have suspected. Comments like Redick’s show that this team has a lot of faith in itself, and on Tuesday, they played like it. It was heartening to see the defense knuckle down on the Pacers, because that’s precisely what the team has been lacking to this point in the season.
I do not subscribe to the school of thought that relying on three-point shooting is a bad thing — I think the Magic can shoot consistently enough and have enough of an interior presence to ensure the quality of looks they get. It IS true, however, that a team relying on the three as much as Magic is more susceptible to regression: there will be bunches of good looks that simply don’t fall. That’s just how it works. So long as the defense provides a decent baseline for the team, however, those peaks and valleys will pretty consistently average out to wins.
I don’t ever really look for intangibles on a basketball court. It’s not that I don’t believe in them, it’s just that I think they’re tremendously over-valued by viewers. I think ninety-nine out of a hundred NBA players have way more “heart” and “will to win” than viewers see; I would feel that all but the most toxic of teams can be professional enough to establish something like “chemistry.”
That said, the Magic are slowly gathering into a whole that is much more than the sum of its parts. With the exception of Dwight Howard, I really believe that every contributor on the team right now would be worse on any other team in the league (Wait, Jason Richardson is still on the Magic? Forget I said anything.) Slowly, I am starting to wonder if perhaps this team has the mental moxie that will put the past few seasons behind them.
I’m not ready to go full-bore optimist yet. If you sort through John Hollinger’s power rankings by strength of schedule, you still won’t see the Magic on the first page. The fact remains that they haven’t consistently played the sort of defense you’d hope to see. But we’ve learned more about them in the past week, and the results have been encouraging. This is the sort of team that doesn’t fold in on itself after a bad performance, and has shown that it could still improve enough in-season to become a real threat. We’ll know still more tonight, when the Magic can really bury Monday’s performance and pay Boston back in kind.
Whatever the case, I’m starting to watch with a different eye, cautiously looking for a rise instead of waiting for the collapse.
Danny Nowell is a contributing writer for Magic Basketball. Follow him on Twitter.