The Magic have won 4 straight, playing well enough that even ESPN notices:
Last year, they gave up almost 102 points per game. This year, they've slowed the game down, and they're allowing only 88 points per game, fewest in the league.
This is something they've worked on under coach Brian Hill. Back when I saw them at training camp with them in Jacksonville, that's what I constantly heard harped on.
It's paying off. It showed in the 87-83 win over the Boston Celtics. The Magic even have Hedo Turkoglu thinking defensively. It used to be he'd scored 18 and the guy he covered would score 18. Granted, he still isn't making stops, but he's drawing the other team's top player, like Paul Pierce here Monday.
Orlando (7-6) is looking competitive in the Heat's Southeast Division. The guy I've been most impressed with is Steve Francis. Early on in the win over the Celtics, it didn't look like Delonte West could hold him.
But Francis is focused on being more of a distributor this season. He took 15 shots on the way to 19 points, but most impressive in his line is this: Seven assists and one turnover.
Up front, Dwight Howard really wants to be better, and he's always trying to improve. You see him trying to put that Tim Duncan 12- to 14-foot bank shot into his repertoire.
And when you watch the game, he's often not impressive. But then you look at the box score against the Celtics and he has 10 points, 10 rebounds. And he had a big block of Blount's would-be game-tying shot with 12 seconds left. Defense!
He reminds me of the way David Robinson approached the game. It's not that he makes it look easy, but he's only touched the tip of the iceberg as far as potential.
Another key has been Jameer Nelson. He scored nine of his 16 points in the last 10 minutes of this game. He's this year's Mr. Fourth Quarter. Tuesday, his Magic face last year's Mr. Fourth Quarter, Ben Gordon.
Dwight Howard is awesome. One day we'll all put in our dusty old tapes of ESPN's coverage of the 2004 draft, see Dick Vitale whine about the Magic selecting Howard over Emeka Okafor, and laugh with nostalgic recollections of when that actually was a debate.
Between this game and the Illini, my DVR may start on fire tonight. With the Magic's recent success, this will be a nice benchmark for both teams. First game home for the Bulls in 2 weeks, a long rest, so hopefully that's all the advantage they'll need tonight.
Update: Except for a bad scoreless stretch in the first half (made worse by Hedo Turkoglu's 3 pointers), the Bulls simply looked like the better team tonight. Great win.
Okay, some blemishes first: Ben Gordon was pretty worthless, and Duhon managed 2 points in 27 minutes. Also, Tyson was lucky that no interior player for the Magic outside of Dwight Howard is worth a damn, else he would've fouled out much sooner. Tyson did go 4-4 from the field though. While they were all dunks, nothing wrong with a high-percentage shot, right?
Luol Deng came out firing, and while missing his first few tries finished with 21 points. Kirk had 20 and 14 assists. The defense trumps it all though, and it really shined in the 2nd half, as the Magic scored only 34 points. The game wasn't in doubt at any point after the 4th started. I'd been wondering when the Bulls would play a game that wasn't nerveracking-ly close, so this one was nice to see.
Knicks ('the hated' Knicks) tomorrow.