Thu Mar 18 11:35am EDT
The Magic have moved up to second in defensive efficiency, you may have noticed.
That is to say, Orlando has given up the second-fewest points per possessions of any team in the NBA this season. Boston is tops, at 102.3 points allowed per 100 possessions, but the Magic are a strong second at 102.6 points allowed per 100 possessions.
The team is eighth in offense, if you were wondering. Which is actually quite a bit better than the team's No. 11 ranking in 2008-09. That was the season they went to the Finals, mind you.
So, through all the injuries, the supposed turmoil and the roster upheaval, here are your Magic - improved on offense, nearly as stout defensively. All the nonsense about the team needing this or falling hard without that, and they're about to enter the season's final month with just about everything sussed out. Have you noticed?
The team is also on par for 58 wins, just one win off of last season's total, and quite the accomplishment for a squad flipped upside down during the summer. That's some sustained success for a team doubted and wondered about by people who really didn't start paying attention to things all blue and Magic-y until the squad dumped Cleveland in the Eastern Conference finals last spring.
And, as it's always been when the team's medical checkups run smoothly, there's no reason to think this team still can't dump Cleveland. Or any squad, for that matter.
Orlando sits just .3 points behind the Cavaliers in point differential, a stat that has long been the marker in this league of the standout and stand-in. The Magic are dumping teams by a differential that far tops the Lakers, the Celtics (Orlando's one true playoff worry, having taken them to seven games last season without Kevin Garnett(notes) on board), or any of the new-ish also-rans.
This is to say, as it's been since last summer, the Magic are stacked. And only the Magic can get in the way of the franchise's first championship.
More specifically, it won't be the players you think.
It won't be Dwight Howard(notes) and his free throws. It certainly won't be Dwight Howard and his iffy post moves. The Magic won't lose because Dwight doesn't remind you of Kevin McHale down low or Jack Sikma from the line. The guy is averaging 18.6 points per game, and Orlando has built a squad around him that makes it so Howard doesn't even have to touch the ball in the game's waning moments. Or far from wanin', even.
Beyond Dwight? Yeah, you're wondering. Here's the truth: Orlando won't lose because Vincent Lamar Carter isn't the fit you think he is.
Hedo Turkoglu(notes) wasn't the fit you thought he was. He was a nice all-around forward who did well in late-game situations and really came to prominence late last season once Orlando started making more nationally televised appearances and Rafer Alston(notes) kept proving himself absolutely terrible in Jameer Nelson's(notes) absence. But overall he was downright Turkoglu-ish, and if you'll remember the Finals accurately, you'll hone in on a man who couldn't get a shot off when it counted.
In his place is Carter, who has done just as well in the clutch over the last few years, a guy who scores more efficiently, who can rebound as much, who passes (yes) just as well and who is more susceptible to taking over games down the stretch than Hedo was and certainly more than Hedo currently is.
It's not the big names you have to worry about, spackling-dotted TV guys. It's the helpers.
The All-Star helpers. No obscure names here, but worrisome objects nonetheless.
Lewis has been awful of late. And Nelson? Deron Williams(notes)-sized talent with a level of inconsistency that makes me sometimes wonder if the Magic might get caught looking in the second round. Much less the Finals.
Lewis' shooting percentages have gone up after a 41 percent February, but he's only at 11.6 points per game in the month of March and, regardless of that massive contract, he needs to be contributing more if the Magic are to pull ahead of the muck. He has to be that stretch 4-man that teams can't counter. That longer Antawn Jamison(notes) who can get shots off from the corner or elbow extended far, far quicker and more accurately than any stretch 4 you can name.
And, yeah, he has to live up to his massive contract. Not because we're tapping our foot and admonishing him from afar, but because the Magic have sent so many resources in his direction. They've paid him the money to be the guy that pushes this team over the edge. A shooter with range shouldn't be the guy pushing teams over the edge, but he at least has to come close to that ideal.
Jameer Nelson? He is the guy that pushes teams over the edge, good edge or bad edge. He has to play the role of mini-Deron Williams, knocking down shots from all over, putting defenses on their heels with his penetration, even if he stops short to nail 20-footer after 20-footer. He has to hit shots. He has to be a threat. He has to be the player who gave the Magic the NBA's best record over the first half of last season.
Nelson has to come through. Name Andrew Bynum(notes), name Shaquille O'Neal(notes) (or any Cavalier beyond LeBron James(notes), really), name Rajon Rondo(notes), name them all. Nelson's more important. If he plays at a high level, the Magic aren't to be beaten. Because you can trust that Howard will do his thing and Carter will contribute. Even on a 3-for-12 night from Rashard Lewis, if Jameer Nelson is on, the Magic are going to beat you.
Because while the game still goes inside out, and finding a good center is still the hardest thing to do in this league, the point guard position is as important as ever. And Nelson is this league's most pivotal X-factor, if you can handle the redundancy, and the Magic don't go over the top without him contributing steadily and efficiently.
They're the keys, and Nelson is the biggest question. But beyond that, you're still looking at a championship contender. Not some team that lucked into a fourth-round finish last year and not some squad going only as far as Dwight Howard takes them.
It has to be "on" for him, though. This team doesn't go anywhere without him.