Really close, in fact.
“They’re a great team. We’re a good team,” said Nelson, the Magic point guard. “We’re trying to get to where they are.”
A quick glance at the standings shows Orlando is rapidly closing whatever gap exists between the teams. When the Magic wake up Thursday morning, they’ll have the best record in the NBA, a mild surprise considering how well the Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Lakers have played so far.
Finding a way remain on that perch into Friday morning, well, that’d be a neat Magic trick.
It’s only one of 82 regular-season contests, yet there will be a distinct big-game feel for the Magic on Thursday night when the reigning NBA champion Celtics visit for a matchup of teams jostling for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference as well as the league’s overall best record.
Forgive Magic coach Stan Van Gundy if he wants no part of the inevitable hyperbole.
“I’ve said all along, and I honestly think it’s true: If they’ll give us two wins for the Boston game, then I’ll make it bigger than the other games,” Van Gundy said. “Otherwise, it’s not.”
At 33-8, Orlando has matched its franchise record for best 41-game start, has won seven straight games and is coming off a road trip where it beat all three division leaders in the Western Conference. No slouches themselves, the Celtics will bring a 35-9 record and six-game winning streak after easing past Miami 98-83 on Wednesday night.
For the Magic, who have topped the 45-win mark only once in the last 12 seasons—last year at 52-30—being part of a matchup of the NBA’s truly elite is uncharted territory. For Boston, which started 27-2 before falling off that never-before-seen pace, the defending champs know they’re a big game for every opponent whether the best record in the East is at stake or not.
“Every night we play, the team has us circled. The trick is that we have to circle them back,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “If we can pull that off, then we can be really good. … We’re playing for home-court every night. Doesn’t matter who the opponent is. And that’s key.”
It’s the second of four games this year between the Celtics and Magic. The first one still stings Orlando.
The Magic lead the NBA in 3-point percentage and 3-pointers made this season, yet turned in perhaps their most brutal long-range shooting night of the year in Boston on Dec. 1, clanging their way to a 5-for-26 showing from beyond the arc. The result was a 107-88 Boston romp, the largest Orlando loss of the season so far.
“They’re the team we’ve been watching,” Magic center Dwight Howard said. “The Lakers and the Celtics, they’re the two best teams. They were in the finals last year. We want to be just like those teams. We look up to the Celtics, the way they play, their chemistry, the way the approach things on the floor. We want to become a great team like that.”
One key to that first meeting: Orlando didn’t have Nelson that night because of injury. He’s feeling fine for this one.
“We match up well,” Nelson said. “We’re coming into the game full-strength for the most part. It’ll be a good game.”
If the Celtics feel anything extra, they’re not letting on.
Before the season began, Rivers distributed a schedule to every player, showing the dates of each game on the schedule. And every night, he listed the Celtics as the opponent.
Boston’s stance is this: Winning depends on how the people in its locker room perform, and each opponent is exactly the same.
“We’ve taken on the mentality that every team deserves that same amount of respect by us preparing equally as hard every time we play,” Celtics guard Ray Allen said. “If you come in with a relaxed attitude, you end up losing. So you’ve got to have that attitude up here at all times.”
The Magic say they’ve adopted that thinking as well.
Of course, that doesn’t mean they’re not shy about looking at this game in big terms, either.
“It means a lot,” Magic forward Rashard Lewis said. “Obviously, Eastern Conference game, one of the best teams in the conference, last year’s champion. We’re at a point where we want to get home-court advantage throughout the whole playoffs, so this game means a lot. At the end of the season, it’s going to come down to games like this.”