A bit of magic may be needed
It was a good thing Friday’s Heat-Magic preseason matchup — their first since Miami became a super team, much to the chagrin of its Florida neighbors — was canceled because of slippery floor conditions at St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa.
Such a clash should not be wasted on the preseason. The fury that originated mostly from Orlando should be reserved for Friday, when the Heat help the Magic open up the Amway Center. It’s safe to say Miami’s Big Three will not receive any door prizes on that historic night.
The Magic have reigned as the supreme team in Florida since the Heat slowly decayed following their 2006 NBA title. Orlando reached the Finals in 2009 and was upset by the Celtics last season in the Eastern Conference finals.
Miami was an afterthought, a one-man team in a half-empty arena that was living off the past. The Heat were then, the Magic were now.
That was until the Heat re-signed Dwyane Wade, who then encouraged Chris Bosh and LeBron James to take their various talents to South Beach.
Suddenly it’s the first season of Miami Vice all over again. The Heat are not only the most controversial team in the league, but the most discussed. The NBA’s focus completely shifted away from the Magic, their new arena, the development of Dwight Howard, and three consecutive Southeast Division titles.
So that prompted the Magic to puncture Miami’s momentum with some verbal zingers. General manager Otis Smith said he lost some respect for James because he abandoned Cleveland to chase a title in Miami. Coach Stan Van Gundy called Bosh a “lapdog’’ for following Wade and settling for a secondary role.
“If they’re the best team in July,’’ Smith said after the signings, “I guess we’re going to have to beat them in June. I don’t know if there’s a power shift. Is Kobe [Bryant] retiring? Let’s not give them a ring so fast. Unless we change the rules, they are going to have to play together. Somebody is going to have to take the side seat. Somebody is going to have to be Robin.’’
What magnified the Heat’s evolution as a superpower was the lack of movement by the Magic. After being embarrassed by the older Celtics, Orlando simply tuned up during the offseason, signing the enigmatic Quentin Richardson from the Heat. Richardson’s only impact last season was a shoving match with Kevin Garnett that caused Garnett’s suspension for Game 2 of the Eastern Conference first round.
Other than that, the Magic stood pat, making very little waves while James, Bosh, and Wade were dancing in front of a raucous Miami crowd. The Magic are still a superb team with a franchise center in Howard, who worked over the summer with Karl Malone and Hakeem Olajuwon on his perimeter game.
But as the rest of the East ramped up for perhaps a Cannonball Run-like chase to the conference crown, the Magic are relying on players such as Jameer Nelson and Vince Carter to produce more.
“There certainly was a bad taste in all of our mouths,’’ Van Gundy told the team’s website. “Not only because of the loss [to the Celtics]. We didn’t feel like we played our best. That just made us all more committed to doing a better job this season. The bottom line is we have to absolutely bring our best the further along you go in the playoffs. We were not able to do that last season.’’
Van Gundy just signed a contract extension and appears secure, but if the Magic falter again, the onus of the collapse will land at his lap. He was outcoached during the Eastern Conference finals by Doc Rivers.
Smith’s inactivity — acquiring only Richardson and Chris Duhon — serves as another vote of confidence that Van Gundy can win a title with the core of the roster that reached the Finals two years ago. Carter was supposed to make a difference, but all he did last season was show brief flashes while being passive and ineffective most other times.
He made no impact during the Celtics series, but Smith and Van Gundy are hoping that a second year in the system will make the former superstar more comfortable. Still, the Magic lack a dependable scorer behind Howard, who is entering his prime.
Howard’s ascent as an offensive force may be good enough for the Magic to finish amongst the elite in the East, but he has yet to show he can carry a team like Bryant, James, or Wade.
“Our team is better, we’re a lot more focused,’’ he told reporters. “You can tell everybody is working toward that. It shows that everybody is committed. We’re trying to win a championship and we’re not competing just against the Miami Heat. That’s where people get it mixed up. If we just concentrate on trying to beat the Heat, we’re going to lose focus on what the real goal is.’’
Total commitment always has been a question in Orlando, and Smith is banking that Howard’s maturity as a leader and the development of Nelson and Rashard Lewis can overcome Miami’s amazing offseason.
But after falling apart against the Lakers in the 2009 Finals, then melting against the Celtics, the Magic have to prove to themselves that they are capable of reaching the pinnacle of NBA success.
Those matchups with the Heat will be interesting because the league lacks many true rivalries. And Friday night in Orlando, Round 1 of the championship of Florida could begin to determine whether the Magic have enough to truly compete in the long run.
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.