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Van Gundy's light touch lifts Magic

Marc J. Spears
Yahoo Sports

BOSTON – Say hello to the kinder, gentler Stan Van Gundy. These days, he might even pet the egos of his sensitive Orlando Magic like “little puppies.”

Long a glass-half-empty type, the Magic coach is known for his tough love with players and keep-it-real attitude with the media. Where there’s sunshine, Van Gundy sees clouds. Shaquille O’Neal(notes), who played under Van Gundy in Miami, famously labeled him the “Master of Panic” last season.

No more, Van Gundy says. Well, no more for now. After learning his players had tired of dreary, Van Gundy has pledged to cut the negativity.

“You’re not going to see me sitting down,” he said. “I doubt I’ll smile very much. I’m not little Mary Sunshine. Look, I’m going to work on being less negative, which doesn’t mean I’m not going to get on them. Just more constructive.

“Telling them, ‘You suck,’ is not going to help them do anything better. It’s more like, ‘What we got to do is get back on defense. We have to get back. We need to do a better job showing on the pick and rolls. You’re not rotating early enough.’ Those things are not negative things. Those are constructive things where you are telling people what need to be done.

“That’s coaching. Saying we are playing like crap may be a fact, but it doesn’t do anything to help anybody.”

Van Gundy has long acknowledged he can be a downer, but even he admits he took it to another level lower the past two weeks. Magic forward Rashard Lewis(notes) said early last week Van Gundy even asked the players if he was being too negative. None of the players answered.

After the Magic beat Charlotte on Monday to improve to 8-3, Van Gundy declared, “I guess I’m waiting to see us play well.” The Magic had yet to play with Lewis, who was serving a 10-game suspension. Van Gundy also felt at that point that there were only “one or two positive” things he could find in the season despite his team having one of the NBA’s top records. Fortunately for him, he doesn’t coach the New York Knicks.

Van Gundy could sense something had changed with his team. The Magic had lost their spirit, so he asked his star center, Dwight Howard(notes), what was wrong.

Howard mentioned the team’s injuries, along with the mounting pressure the Magic had faced since reaching the NBA Finals. Then he pointed the finger at his coach. Specifically, Howard said the Magic’s five newcomers were struggling to adjust to the team’s system with Van Gundy cutting them little slack during games.

“I know that Coach wants the nothing but the best for us,” Howard said. “But sometimes basketball players are like little puppies and we want our owners to pat us on the head and tell us, `Good job.’ I know even when I make a mistake I like sometimes for my dad to say that, ‘It’s OK and we’ll get ’em next time.’ ”

Van Gundy decided it was time to make a change.

“I’m not going to pat guys on that pack and say, ‘Don’t worry. If you don’t want to get back, if you don’t want to get back tonight, that’s no big deal. And if you don’t want to rotate, as long as you’re happy, we’re good with that,’ ” Van Gundy said. “That’s not me and that’s not how I want to be. To be quite honest, Dwight doesn’t want it to be that way either. But we need to stay constructive.”

Howard said the team’s new players were having trouble adjusting to Van Gundy’s style, but had the franchise’s happy-go-lucky star also grown tired of the negativity?

Howard has had his issues with Van Gundy, including during last season’s playoff series against Boston when he publicly criticized his coach for not getting him the ball often enough. Howard, however, says he has a “great relationship” with Van Gundy and that the two can always come to each other to work things out when they do have a problem.

“We’ve grown over the years and it’s only continued to get better,” Howard said. “Like I told him the first time he got here, 'I’ll always be his soldier,’ and whatever he needs me to do or wants me to do, I’ll do it.’’

Still, part of Van Gundy’s mellowing seems directly related to Howard.

“A guy like Dwight Howard who is loose and carefree and Stan, ultimate perfectionist on the other side, are not going to see things the same,” said former NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy, Stan’s brother. “What Howard might see as negative, Coach might see as telling the truth. I see it as a natural conflict. That’s what you have sometimes with different personalities. That hasn’t prevented them from being very successful.”

The Magic noticed an immediate difference in Van Gundy the first game after Howard addressed him. Orlando beat the Oklahoma City Thunder that night and went on win in Boston on Friday when they gutted out a tough 83-78 win over the Celtics.

“We have a talented group of guys,” Magic guard Anthony Johnson(notes) said. “Allow us to play and just see what we’re bringing to the floor before he starts getting on us. But that’s Coach. The older guys are getting used to it, but it’s going to take some getting used to from the new guys.”

For now, life seems to have brightened for the Magic. They won’t have point guard Jameer Nelson(notes) for another month, but they’re 2-0 since Van Gundy softened his touch.

The big question: Can the real Van Gundy can stay hidden when things aren’t so Disney-like near the Magic Kingdom this season?

“I don’t believe it,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “Good luck.”