Magic Finish Tough Month

The Magic completed a tough month of February with an 8-5 record, and extended their lead from 3.5 games over the Washington Wizards at the beginning of the month to either 8 or 9 games, pending Washington's game Friday night at Chicago.

It was supposed to be moving month for Orlando, as the majority of the Magic's games were at home, and Washington was on the road for eight of their first 13 contests. Orlando took advantage of the corresponding schedules, as well as some key Washington injuries to Caron Butler and Gilbert Arenas, and now have a commanding lead as they look for their first division title in 12 years.

It was also expected by many that the Magic would experience a roster shakeup at the trade deadline, but general manager Otis Smith decided that there were no deals that could help the team.

"We could use another big, but there's just not a lot out there that makes sense for us, to make you want to do anything," said Smith.

"We need to continue to grow, develop and learn how to play the game the right way. We have a lot of good players that are still learning how to play. And Stan is doing a very good job teaching our players how to play the right way. And for us, we are continuing to build a team that can play in June - not just November through April."

Orlando decided to stay pat and head into the stretch run with what they have, which is a team that has posted a 37-22 record, which is good for third-best in the Eastern Conference. Still, the team has some defensive issues. Orlando is ranked 19th in opponents scoring, and is giving up over 100 points per game, mainly due to their up and down style of play. The Magic are also ranked 27th in the league in steals, averaging just 6.3 per game. Head coach Stan Van Gundy talked about the team's perceived lack of toughness–

"We've got to get tougher in the physical parts of the game over the next 7 1/2 weeks. A lot of that is defensively, how we play in the post, putting a body in front of the ball, taking charges, blocking out, getting on the floor for loose balls, all things we haven't been great at. The better teams we'll see in the playoffs are more physical. And we have to match those things.''

The Magic are far from a perfect team, but on select nights when the defensive effort is there and the outside shots are falling, they can compete with anyone in the Eastern Conference, if not the entire NBA, as referenced by their current winning record against both Detroit and Boston (4-3). Looking ahead to March, Orlando has 10 of their 14 games at the friendly confines of Amway Arena, and six of those 10 games are against teams with records worse than .500. Orlando's four road dates are certainly manageable, as they take on the second place Washington Wizards, the lowly Miami Heat, the Atlanta Hawks, and the Milwaukee Bucks. Each of those teams are under .500, and each of those games are certainly winnable.

As far as their competition goes, the Wizards March schedule includes an even number of home and road games (eight a piece). Of their 16 games, half are against teams with records that are better than .500, including dates against New Orleans, Detroit, and Cleveland, as well as trips to Los Angeles to face the best in the west Lakers, and the very tough Utah Jazz. Among those 16 games are two dates with the Magic over a two week span (one in each city), and it certainly appears as if Orlando will be able to deliver the Wizards a final knockout blow and secure the Southeast title.

Orlando's 8-5 record in February was a little disappointing, but they showed signs of being among the elite teams on a few nights (when they handed Detroit and Boston losses, and played L.A. as well as anyone has recently), and they were able to extend their division lead by five games. Everything sets up well for them to secure a playoff berth, and March is the month in which the team need to begin to play their best ball on both ends of the court. The players no longer have to look over their shoulders due to trade speculation, and everyone should feel comfortable with their role. It's now up to the team to finally deliver a division championship back to the city of Orlando.


Charlie Bernstein is the Editor-in-Chief of MagicIllustrated.com, and a regular syndicated contributor to FoxSports.com, Sirius Radio, MySpace Sports and Sportsillustrated.com. Charlie is also a columnist for the New Smyrna Observer. Feel free to contact him -HERE- with questions or comments.


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