Results worth shouting about
ORLANDO, Fla. — It wasn’t that Dwight Howard was requesting his coach, Stan Van Gundy, to completely change his approach or suddenly react to every Orlando Magic miscue with a bright smile and thumbs-up for encouragement. After two seasons, one of the NBA’s most lovable and gentle characters realized that the word “satisfaction’’ is not in Van Gundy’s vocabulary.
Following a difficult home win against the Charlotte Bobcats, Van Gundy reacted with yet another four-letter-word, high-octave tirade, and the players looked to Howard, their leader and most accomplished player, for intervention. It was Game 11, the Magic had revamped their roster after their failures in the NBA Finals, and yet the players already had begun the process of tuning out their coach.
Howard met with Van Gundy the morning following the Nov. 16 Charlotte game to try to get the coach to curtail such reactions. He explained that if victory would be met with such a coarse response, then difficulties could lie ahead.
Van Gundy listened, and allowed players such as Vince Carter, Matt Barnes, and Ryan Anderson to blend with their new teammates. Wins were met with more Tony Robbins and less George Patton, and the players grew to understand that Van Gundy’s unrelenting attitude is rooted in his desire to win.
“He’s still yelling,’’ Barnes said yesterday after the Magic practiced at RDX Sportsplex in advance of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Celtics today. “He’s still never satisfied, which is good. He is always going to be on us, always expects perfection, and, you know, that’s how you get the best out of us.
“I am one of the players, you can yell at me or say whatever — I know what my job is. It’s just to see him yelling all the time, how animated he is, it takes a little getting used to, but it’s not a problem.’’
Van Gundy’s letting up on the gas pedal allowed the new-look Magic to mesh and play their most productive basketball in the final two months of the season. Since a Feb. 26 loss at New Orleans, the Magic are 28-3, including eight impressive playoff wins over Charlotte and Atlanta.
General manager Otis Smith was heavily criticized following Orlando’s 26-15 start for allowing Hedo Turkoglu to sign with the Toronto Raptors and acquiring Carter, a former perennial All-Star desperately seeking team success after 10 years of brilliant individual highlights but just one conference final appearance.
It took months for Carter to mesh with Orlando’s system, which uses Howard’s dominance inside to free up 3-point shooters at three spots on the floor.
After a 14-game stretch in which Carter averaged just 8.7 points that had observers wondering whether he was still an elite player, he responded with nearly 48-percent shooting after the All-Star break and a vintage 48-point outburst on Feb. 8 against the Hornets.
Carter appeared beaten down by years of being his team’s primary offensive source and relished the opportunity for a complementary role.
“It’s easy when you play on a team like this that has so many scorers,’’ he said. “Yeah, you don’t get as many touches, that’s always a question that people ask, but I live for playing on a team like this. Getting to the NBA it was a little different task, it was, ‘OK, we’re going to put the ball in your hands to make plays’ but I’ve always grown up and understood playing the game [the team way].
“It’s great to come back to a team like this.’’
Carter didn’t flinch or bristle at Van Gundy’s approach. He said he was reminded of a high school coach in his native Daytona Beach, and even former Nets coach Lawrence Frank. What the newcomers understood was that the yelling was Van Gundy’s way of expressing his passion. It took nearly 50 games for the players to turn Van Gundy’s criticism into motivation.
“He works hard, and I think once you understand that, it all makes sense,’’ Carter said.
“It’s tough. You get used to it after a while. You understand he wants to win and that’s all he cares about. He’s going to bring the best out of you.’’
Of course, if the Magic fail to reach the Finals, the season will be considered a disappointment and Van Gundy may be subjected to the same scrutiny as Cleveland’s embattled Mike Brown.
“We would like nothing more than to win a title, but I am sure Cleveland felt the same way,’’ Van Gundy said. “I don’t think I’ve changed a lot in the way I’ve coached, whether it’s good or bad, you guys can analyze that, too. It’s good right now because we won eight in a row. If we don’t win this series, then I’ll be like every other coach that’s lost, the biggest idiot in the world. It’s amazing how you can go from smart to dumb in six or seven days.’’