Jameer Nelson and Dwight Howard have the Magic off to their best start since 1995.
Hedo Turkoglu was warmly wrapped in a fluffy black terrycloth robe, his name neatly stitched on the right lapel, and, yes, that did appear to be a somewhat odd post-game fashion choice for a 6-foot-10 Turkish NBA star, given the trail of shaking heads and catcalls pooling behind him as he strutted into the locker room.
"Don't hate!" Turkoglu barked at his audience of disbelievers.
High comedy was in the air for the Orlando Magic. They had just beaten the San Antonio Spurs on the road for their 30th victory, a rarified position held at the time by just one other team, and none of the Magic, it seemed, had any desire to leave, even as their bus idled a short distance away in the arena's loading dock.
Keith Bogans had started to needle Courtney Lee about the lack of color in his wardrobe only to have the rookie guard fire back by hanging this nickname on his veteran teammate: "Verbal Killer." Bogans, according to Lee, at least talks a good game.
Jameer Nelson directed the entire scene from the seat of his chair, busting on Turkoglu, Bogans, Lee and backup center Tony Battie in rapid-fire succession. In a few minutes, Dwight Howard would appear in front of his locker neatly dressed in slacks, tie and sweater – with a matching $200 tan cowboy hat perched atop his head. "Howdy fel-las," Howard boomed. "There's a new sheriff in town."
"Abbott and Costello," Anthony Johnson, Orlando's backup point guard, said, motioning toward Howard and Nelson.
"I don't even know who Albert and Costello are," Nelson said, his knowledge of 1940s comedy teams a little lacking. "But whoever they want me to be, I'll be."
These days the Magic are content to let Nelson be himself. Whereas he was once deemed to be the weak link in the team's eclectic cast, the diminutive Nelson has grown into a standout lead guard, partnering with Howard to give Orlando a formidable tag-team duo. While Howard has taken the NBA's Superman mantle from Shaquille O'Neal, the league, with apologies to Damon Stoudamire, also has a new Mighty Mouse.
"He's like my big little brother," Howard said. "I just wish people would stop looking at his height and stop saying bad stuff about him. The little guy can play."
The league is fast recognizing that about the Magic as a whole. They've won 15 of their past 17 games and have a 32-8 record that ranks second in the NBA. On Friday, they completed a season sweep of the Los Angeles Lakers for the first time by rallying in the tense final two minutes on the road. They also swept both games from the Spurs this season and routed the New Orleans Hornets on Christmas. On Tuesday, they lit up the hapless Sacramento Kings with an NBA record 23 3-pointers.
What's noticeably lacking in their record, however, is a single victory over the Boston Celtics, Cleveland Cavaliers and Detroit Pistons. The Magic have played the Celtics and Pistons each once, losing both, and have yet to face the Cavaliers.
That's one reason why Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy is hesitant to label his team's record as anything more than "decent." Howard and Nelson, though young, also have learned by now that statements are made in May and June. Not January.
"We haven't done anything," Nelson said. "We won a playoff series. It's a long way to go, to get better, to get to where we want to get."
The Magic only got to the second round last season, and while that was a noteworthy accomplishment considering the franchise hadn't won a playoff series since 1996, the Detroit Pistons dismissed them from the East semifinals in just five games. Losing that convincingly to the Pistons, who also had swept Orlando out of the first round a year earlier, was nothing short of "embarrassing," Howard said.
Jameer Nelson ranks first in the NBA among guards with a .533 shooting percentage.
Howard and Nelson resolved to return this season hungrier and more focused. Howard spent the summer playing for the U.S. national team in the Olympics, and the experience taught him "how to play a role and play it well." Van Gundy chewed on Howard at times last season for not dedicating himself as Orlando's defensive anchor, and he's continued to stay on him. While Howard leads the league in blocks, he still has considerable room for growth as a position defender. He made Tim Duncan work in their recent meeting, muscling him out of position and, for at least a brief stretch, unsettling the four-time champion. But the Magic's coaches would like to see Howard sustain that kind of effort.
"Dwight's thing is, in terms of guarding his own men, he'll compete real hard against Tim," Van Gundy said. "Guys he doesn't have respect for, he doesn't defend very well in the post. You'll have guys who are a long way below Tim Duncan go and score three, four straight hoops in the post on him."
Howard has tapped into enough of his potential to become a top-five MVP candidate, if not top three. But no player among the Magic has improved more this season than Nelson. Nelson doesn't quite measure up to his listed height of 6-foot, and almost since the day the Magic traded for him in the 2004 draft, he's been told he's too small. His shoot-first tendencies also drew criticism, and Orlando's decision to hand him a five-year, $30 million contract extension the summer before last season raised more than a few eyebrows. When Nelson averaged just 10.9 points last season, the fewest since his rookie year, there was some sentiment that Orlando needed an upgrade at point guard if it was ever going to become a legit contender.
In truth, though, Nelson's play had begun to improve after last season's All-Star break. His father, who also was his best friend, was found dead in Philadelphia's Delaware River shortly before the start of last season, and the loss clearly weighed on him, even if Nelson never used it as an excuse for his early struggles. The coaching change to Van Gundy also left Nelson searching on the court.
Van Gundy soon realized it was senseless to try to make Nelson into a pass-first Jason Kidd clone because that took him away from his greatest strengths.
"Jameer's thing is and always has been the energy he plays with and how much he attacks, how aggressive he is," Van Gundy said. "I think when he plays at a high energy level and when he's attacking, he's a very effective player. … As long as he is attacking and trying to make plays, I don't quibble a lot."
Or, as Nelson says, "If I'm not looking for my own, I'm not a threat."
Dwight Howard leads the NBA in both rebounding and blocked shots.
Nelson has been a threat this season, as well as a potential All-Star, averaging a career-best 16.6 points. His .533 shooting percentage ranks first in the NBA among guards, and he's also made 45.8 percent of his 3-point attempts, fifth-best in the league. He made all five of his 3-pointers in the Magic's record-setting performance against the Kings two days after hanging 12 fourth-quarter points on the Spurs. In the most recent victory over the Lakers, he scored 15 of his 28 points in the final quarter.
With Turkoglu, Rashard Lewis and, at times, either Bogans or J.J. Redick also surrounding Howard, the Magic have a lethal lineup of shooters. And while they aren't as physical as the Cavs or Celtics or Pistons, they also aren't Euro-soft, ranking third in the league in defensive efficiency.
"We kind of know how to win now," Nelson said.
Nelson, 26, has worked to establish himself as a leader alongside the 23-year-old Howard. For the past three summers, he's invited his Magic teammates to work out with him in Philadelphia. Anyone who doesn't have a national team commitment usually attends. Conditioning drills, weightlifting, yoga, boxing, paintball and bowling fill the days.
"Since been I've been here, we've talked about leading the team and wanting to bring some magic back to Orlando," Howard said. "When we first came to our league, there was nobody at our games, no buzz about the Magic anywhere."
The Magic still don't generate as many headlines as their more heralded peers, and that sometimes frustrates Howard. But winning breeds attention.
"At the end of the season, when it's time to hold up the trophy," he said, "we want to be those guys."
And if they have a little fun while trying to do so, all the better. When Nelson isn't busting on Turkoglu for his robe, he's filling Howard's suit pockets with crackers, Rice Krispies treats, Powerbars and any other kind of snack food he can find. Bogans mocks Howard's selection of Victorian-era loafers by asking where he parked his carriage. As for Superman's real secret power: Among the Magic, Howard's flatulence is epic. No NBA player clears out a locker room faster.
Abbott or Albert and Costello. On the court and off, Nelson and Howard are fast giving the Magic a show worth watching.