Magic Struggle to Re-Discover Chemistry
They aren't so good anymore.
When the Orlando Magic revamped their roster last summer, changing five of their top 11 players, they became deeper and more talented, but they lost the delicate chemistry that led to the finest season in franchise history.
"We're out of sync and unsure of ourselves right now,'' said point guard Jameer Nelson (pictured right) after a 108-103 loss to Toronto. "The effort, intensity, the focus, just isn't there.''
The Magic (24-11) still have the third-best record in the Eastern Conference, but they aren't the third-best team today. They aren't the fourth- or fifth-best, either. They are fading.
They lost their third consecutive game Wednesday night -- all to East teams with sub-.500 records -- and gave little indication that a turnaround was coming anytime soon. Not with five of the next six on the road, where the Magic have lost five of their last six.
"It's just a struggle right now,'' said Magic coach Stan Van Gundy. "It's the frustration that people are feeling and instead of frustration maybe fueling an anger, to where you want to do something about it, I see more of us hanging our heads. Until things change, it will probably keep going like this.''
They are healthy physically -- more so than most teams -- but they are struggling mentally, unsure now which direction they are headed. The confidence they gained by reaching the NBA Finals, by beating Boston and Cleveland in back-to-back playoff series, has turned to uncertainty. The closeness they had a year ago disappeared with the changes they made to the roster.
Dwight Howard still misses best friend Courtney Lee, who was traded to New Jersey. And his body language suggests it. They all miss Hedo Turkoglu, who took his goofiness as a free agent to Toronto. The addition of veterans Vince Carter, Jason Williams and Matt Barnes gave them experience, but it also changed the locker room.
"This is a different team. This is a totally different team, and we're just going through a tough stretch right now,'' Howard said. "But we're still close, real close.''
Howard, still the best center in the league, is scoring less (16.8 ppg) than he has since his second season in the NBA. He is playing less because of foul trouble, but he also isn't getting his shots, which has added to his frustration. He averaged 12.7 shots per game last season, and he has dropped to 8.9 shots this season.
Howard nearly had a triple-double in Wednesday night's loss to Toronto, but that wasn't a good thing. He had 20 points, 12 rebounds and nine turnovers. He had seven turnovers in the first half, tying a franchise record, because he still isn't sure of the changes around him.
Carter, an eight-time All-Star, is shooting a career low 39.2 percent from the field, now in a horrible slump. He had just seven points Wednesday, and he has made only 10 of his last 47 shots.
Rashard Lewis also has seen his scoring drop significantly as he adapts to a different team dynamic. Nelson, who missed the second half of last season with a shoulder injury, has returned as the starting point guard, but his effectiveness has not been consistent.
Van Gundy has been preaching for weeks now that the effort early in games just isn't there. The Magic won early this season by coasting until they unleashed enough power to win late, getting by on talent alone. They looked like the high school student who is so smart he can ace an exam without studying.
It's catching up to them now.
"Right now, everyone is searching for answers,'' said reserve guard J.J. Redick, who had 22 points Wednesday. "The main problem is everybody. You can't just think we can turn it on, and turn it off, whenever we want.''
It was one thing to lose back-to-back games in Chicago and Indiana, even if the Pacers were missing half their key players. It's something else to lose at home to the Raptors, falling behind by 18 points before they picked up the pace and made it close at the end.
The Magic didn't lose their 11th games last season until early February. They raised expectations by reaching the NBA Finals. And they talked all summer about happily putting a target on their backs, relishing the championship expectations.
Those hopes seem pretty distant today.
"The chemistry and dynamics are not good right now,'' Van Gundy said. "No doubt, we've struggled with expectations at times. When you're supposed to win and then play poorly, it's magnified. This is something we've brought on ourselves.''