Howard is expected to be return from a knee injury on Thursday when the Southeast Division-leading Magic open a four-game homestand against the San Antonio Spurs, who hope to bounce back from their first loss in two weeks.
Despite injuries to Howard and its top three guards, Orlando (19-6) is off to its best start since the 1994-95 team opened 22-5.
Howard bruised his knee during a fall in Friday’s 113-111 loss to Phoenix, snapping the Magic’s four-game winning streak. Howard, who is averaging 21.1 points and league bests of 14.1 rebounds and 3.9 blocks, missed Orlando’s next two games, and the team responded with wins in each.
Orlando wrapped up a five-game road trip with Monday’s 109-98 win over Golden State. Marcin Gortat, starting in place of Howard, had personal bests of 16 points and 13 rebounds and Jameer Nelson added a career high-tying 32 points on 5-of-9 from 3-point range.
“I have to feel good about what they’ve done so far, no question,” Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said. “The cautionary thing is that in this league, things change overnight. What you’ve done in the first 25 games doesn’t mean anything in the 26th game, or 27th game. You just have to be ready.”
Orlando’s next few games could be telling for a team that is hoping to contend for the Eastern Conference crown and the NBA title.
After facing San Antonio (15-9), the Magic host the Western Conference-leading Los Angeles Lakers on Saturday and conclude their homestand on Christmas against Southwest Division-leading New Orleans, which defeated San Antonio 90-83 on Wednesday.
“These are definitely two statement games, big games for us,” said forward Rashard Lewis, who is averaging 23.3 points in his last four contests. “This will let us know if we are an elite team.”
The Magic have not had much success against the Spurs lately, losing three straight and 11 of the last 14 meetings. Orlando lost both matchups last season by an average of 14.0 points, despite Howard’s 58 points and 37 rebounds in those contests.
San Antonio had its six-game winning streak snapped with Wednesday’s loss to New Orleans, as the Hornets scored 23 of the game’s final 31 points.
The Spurs made just 4 of their final 21 shots and finished the game shooting 38.8 percent from the floor.
“New Orleans did a great job down the stretch,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “They had mental and physical toughness. … They just outplayed us in the last four minutes. They made a couple of shots, we didn’t, and that was the game.”
San Antonio, which has won 10 of its last 14 games, has struggled with its shooting in the last four defeats. The Spurs are averaging 81.3 points on 38.6 percent in those losses while putting up 108.6 points on 49.8 percent shooting in their last 10 victories.
They may have trouble getting in rhythm on Thursday, as the Magic are sixth in the league in field goal defense (43.7 percent).
San Antonio didn’t have any offensive problems against Orlando last season, though, as it averaged 117.5 points on 52.7 percent shooting in the two victories.