The Evolution of the Magic
It all starts with Dwight.
by Tracy Weissenberg / @basketballista
Orlando’s final scene from last season looked straight out of a movie. With the Lakers celebrating the franchise’s 15th championship on the Magic’s floor, Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson sat courtside and soaked it all in.
On his firsthand view of the celebration, Howard says, “I wanted Jameer to feel the pain like I wanted to…we never want to go through that experience again.”
So this year, can the Magic rewrite the ending?
“Getting to the Finals last year was fun, but it’s going to be even tougher to get back to the Finals this year…and not only that, but when you get there, it’s even tougher to win it,” says forward Rashard Lewis.
This is especially true when your team is on everyone’s radar. Offseason acquisition Matt Barnes, part of the 2007 Warriors team that upset the No. 1 Mavericks, says, “You know we’re not going to sneak up on anybody. With the Warriors, we snuck up on people; you know they weren’t expecting anything from us. But this team’s gone to the Finals last year, anything less would be a failure.”
Matt Barnes has proven he won’t back down from difficult defensive assignments. And some gritty players are exactly what the Magic need. Point guard Jameer Nelson will give the backcourt the toughness it lacked last year when Nelson was out during the Playoffs and not healthy for the Finals. “I try to do the dirty things when I can, rebounds when we need them, I try to stop my man, especially crunch time,” says Nelson, “I mean I’m a contact guard and I’m not shying away from anybody.”
But perhaps the most intriguing factor will be the play of Dwight Howard and the impact of a chance meeting with four-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year Dikembe Mutombo. Howard ran into Mutombo last season at a restaurant, where Mutombo was dining with Magic assistant coach Patrick Ewing.
“[Mutombo] just said, ‘What I want you to do is just like go beyond the limits of what you think you can do, especially defensively, as far as blocking shots.’ He just said he feels like the way I can jump and move, that I should be Defensive Player of the Year, every year, until I get old.
“And he said, ‘You want to take advantage of all the things that you have now, all the talent, all the skills, the ability to move around well…you don’t want to wait until you get older and try to win and try to do all the good things. Do them now while you’re young,’” recalls Howard.
Howard currently leads the League in rebounds and blocks, but statistics don’t always translate to postseason success. While the Lakers already had size in their frontcourt, the Cavaliers added Shaquille O’Neal in hopes of preventing another postseason loss to Orlando. Asked if the Cavaliers’ addition has any impact on the Magic’s strategy, Howard says, “We’re going to continue to play our game and we make teams adjust to us. We don’t adjust to anybody; we make teams adjust to what we do.”
While Howard won’t adjust for other teams, he will adjust for his own. “All of us have one goal in mind, there’s no individual goals. We all just want to win a championship…We understand that we have to sacrifice something for us to win,” he says.
And one of those sacrifices is scoring. Howard says that after the Magic acquired Vince Carter in an offseason trade with New Jersey, he and his teammates knew they would take fewer shots. “He needs shots, he needs to get up attempts. We all understand that. I think everybody felt like our numbers are down, this and that, because we’re not producing as well, but I think we’re being efficient,” says Howard.
He adds, “I think last season and the years before, I would be upset if I didn’t get shots, if I didn’t score like I want to score. But now I understand that if I get my teammates involved, it’s going to make us an even more dangerous team.”
While Howard’s satisfaction with his role shows his maturity as a player, his definition of what makes Orlando a top team shows his maturity as a teammate and leader. He says, “We’ve always been a team that works extremely hard in practice, you know we battle, we fight each other, and that’s what makes a good team–how great you practice.”
Orlando had the ultimate practice in the 2009 Finals. And with that experience under their belt, Howard and Nelson hope to have a different view heading into this offseason.