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Sizing up the East: Orlando

Posted by Julian Benbow, Globe Staff  August 20, 2010 12:39 PM

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Dream-weaving

magic (1).JPG

The million dollar question: Exactly how good are the Magic? On the one hand, they’ve been the Eastern Conference Finals the past two years. They bounced LeBron from the playoffs two years ago, before being Kobe’d in the Finals. On the other hand, the Celtics manhandled them in the ECF this year, going up three games to none before closing it out. And you could argue (as someone did in the office yesterday) that they wouldn’t have reached the Finals in ‘09 if Kevin Garnett were healthy.

That said, they’re a contender no matter how you look at it. And now that Miami’s all star-studded, they’ve got a chip on their shoulder that should help fuel the inter-state rivalry even further. Whether they’re better than the team that won 59 games last season is another question. They showed how much they value JJ Redick by giving him a three-year, $19 million deal. But their biggest offseason addition (Chris Duhon) doesn’t really make up for their biggest loss (Matt Barnes). Jameer Nelson, one of the franchise’s cornerstones, had to deal with chatter about a possible deal for Chris Paul. Then, there’s the small matter of Dwight Howard’s offensive progression. The Magic could hold their ground as the team all others must go through to reach the Finals. But they could just as easily take a step back.

Key adds: Chris Duhon, Quentin Richardson

Key loss: Matt Barnes

Celtics games: Dec. 25 at Orlando, Jan. 17 at Boston, Feb. 6 at Boston

Strengths: They’re still one of the best defensive teams in the league, one of the best rebounding teams in the league and one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the league. Dwight Howard’s essentially a lock for defensive player of the year until another 7-foot, shot-swatting freak of nature comes along.

Weakness: Who’s the go-to guy? They brought Vince Carter in to be the binge-scoring play-maker they could go to in clutch. When he clanged two free throws that helped give the Celtics a 95-92 win in Game 2 of the ECF, they found out Carter’s apparently allergic to the clutch. Rashard Lewis also disappeared, and when they needed buckets outside of Nelson and Howard, they had nowhere to turn.

Howard and Hakeem: The word that Howard reached out to Hakeem Olajuwan to work on his offensive game generally brought about two responses. 1. How did this not happen sooner? 2. How did Kobe Bryant get there first? Howard’s had a number of mentors in his six years in the league from Clifford Ray to Patrick Ewing. How much he’ll gain from working with The Dream, remains to be seen. But God help the rest of the league if he develops that complete offensive game he’s been lacking.

From George Diaz of the Orlando Sentinel:

dwight and hakeem.jpgHakeem Olajuwon called Dwight Howard a scaredy cat. His exact term was "afraid," but still, calling out a big man like that is usually "fightin' werds." Howard didn't flinch. He listened, took things to heart. Fabulous.

I don't know if Howard's mentoring hook-up with Hakeem will be much ado about nothing or a pivotal turning point in his career. It's certainly has made for some frisky blogosphere chatter about Hakeem's influence on Howard, the scope of Patrick Ewing's ability to make Howard a better player, and whether Howard himself is committed to the cause.

We'll find out shortly when the invites roll out for a new downtown arena, future home of the Orlando Magic and their championship dreams. Right now, there's good reason to be pumped up about the prospects.

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