Magic practice what they preach.
by Tracy Weissenberg / @basketballista
A lot of people base Orlando’s identity on the fact that they are overlooked. And compared to Miami and Boston, they are. But in the locker room, all the players — including those who tasted the bittersweet success of reaching the NBA Finals and the new faces hoping to get there — define the team by something far more basic and a lot less subjective: the way they practice.
“Our whole thing is just building habits and that’s something that when we had our meeting before training camp started, that’s what we wanted to do,” said free-agent addition Chris Duhon. “We wanted to create an identity where we’re a team that’s gonna not get outworked, play harder than every team that we play, and we’ve been doing it every day in practice and it’s just been carrying over to the games.”
Duhon spent the previous two seasons with the Knicks, on teams that compiled a 61-103 record during his tenure. The Magic, winners of 59 games last season, looked dominant behind two-time Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard. One year after losing the NBA Finals in five games to the Lakers, the Magic swept their first two playoff series before running into the Celtics, a team with veteran know-how, a big-game point guard, and a defensive-minded center. Instead of a chance at redemption, the Magic once again had a summer to reflect on getting close, but still falling short.
“We feel as though we have all the pieces needed to win,” says Duhon, who became one of those pieces this summer after watching the Magic operate from an outsider’s perspective the past few seasons. “They’ve been close the last couple of years and just haven’t been able to get over that hump so I think a lot of the guys here are really, really hungry to have that opportunity again to win a championship and I’m just feeding off of their energy…I’m just feeding off how they prepare each game and how they prepare for practice and the intensity level has been so high and it’s been consistent and that’s something special, that’s the way you build habits.”
On transitioning to a team with hopes of returning to the NBA Finals, Duhon says, “It hasn’t been hard. All these guys have been preparing and coming to each practice, each game, as professionals. When you see that from Dwight all the way down, you know what to expect, you know what the norm is.”
And the norm for the Magic is a sense of pride in practice, a part of the game in which the effort put into the process can only be seen by the results. “We treat every game as though it’s a regular-season game so we can get better,” says All-Star center Dwight Howard, “so we don’t really look at it as pre-season games, we look at it as regular-season games. Same thing with practices and I think that’s what has made us very successful so far, just because of the way we practice and how hard we work every day.”
So far, the all-in mindset has translated to pre-season games, which has impressed head coach Stan Van Gundy. “What’s getting us through and why we’re playing well is our intensity is very high,” he says, “we’re playing extremely hard, I think we’re defending hard. Everybody is trying to rebound the ball. Our guys are getting after it.”
Van Gundy adds, “Our guys have played hard every day, practice…they go hard every single day, it’s just habits right now. I think we’re playing tougher than we were a year ago…guys are finding ways to contribute even when they’re not playing great offensively…our offense has a long, long way to go but I love the way our team is approaching it.”
After the Eastern Conference became considerably deeper and more competitive this summer, the Magic will need to keep pace with teams like the Celtics, who added both depth and size this offseason. Van Gundy plans to utilize a more fluid rotation by increasing the minutes of Brandon Bass and Ryan Anderson. “I want to keep more flexibility alive, and if I take one of those guys and don’t play him, then all of a sudden you say this is a good situation, they’re not ready to go,” he says, “so I got to give them playing time, at least some every night, so that they’re ready to go because then there’s nights when we may need one of them for 30 minutes, so I’m going to play them.”
The Magic also plan to play Rashard Lewis at both small and power forward, depending on the opponent. “I think it’ll give us the flexibility to play big and small, you know have me play the 4 — depending on the match-up — when we’re playing against a small team. When we’re playing against bigger teams, move me to the 3 and bring a big guy in at the 4,” says Lewis.
Asked how he’ll have to adjust, Lewis says, “I think the biggest adjustment for me will be on the defensive end…I have to move my feet a little bit more out on the perimeter and close out on shooters and try to fight over pick and rolls and single screens when guys come off and shoot the ball.”
Lewis agrees that position-based flexibility will give the Magic different looks to throw against opponents like the Celtics and Lakers, who play big but also have solid perimeter scorers. Lewis points out defense as the main key to returning to the NBA Finals. “I think our defense is what got us there,” he says.
One player who hopes to fill a role is Quentin Richardson, who has two playoff appearances in 10 NBA seasons. On his job, Richardson says, “I know I’m gonna be mainly guarding the best perimeter players on the opposing teams…trying to be tough out there and make the open shots and try and help out in every other area I can.”
On taking on tough defensive assignments, Richardson says, “Just know that we’re in the NBA and guys are very good and it’s going to be nights that guys score a lot of points and things like that but my job is just to try and make it as difficult as possible and give them as hard a time as possible…and try and make them shoot low percentages.”
Asked if the best defenders have the shortest memories, Richardson says, “I know I try not to think about it much, cause I know, like I say, how good guys are in this league and sometimes you play your best defense and they’re just that good, they still score.”
While Richardson is discussing defense, the self-awareness and recognition of the League’s talent is evident in the way the Magic approach the season as a whole. While a team can’t control its competition, it can eliminate the variable of preparation, since the Magic vow to be ready for whichever opponent they face.
On the Magic’s game plan in relation to increased competition in the east, Dwight Howard says, “Our game plan every night is to play harder than the other team. That’s never going to change, no matter who we play against.”
Asked if there will be new challenges this season, Howard says, “Our challenge is ourselves, if we go out there and fight that hard every night, we have a chance to get back to the Finals.”
If the challenge sometimes is oneself, the last question that remains is whether the Magic have what it takes mentally to return, since they have already shown their commitment to putting in the physical work. “I think our team is tough enough to get there,” says Howard without hesitation. As Duhon said, from Howard on down, the team stays humble in its professionalism beginning with practice. The dynamic of the NBA changes rapidly, and while success can be ephemeral, work ethic is a key to longevity. There are always going to be teams and players willing to put in the time, and the Magic hope that this season, time behind the scenes eventually leads to the spotlight.