Magic Enjoying the Cavs/Celtics Battle
Dwight Howard was playfully volleying back and forth with reporters, quizzing them on their favorite actors and actresses, also serving as a movie critic and stand-up comic. Jameer Nelson and Carter did a comedy duet for anyone who wanted to watch.
Looking relaxed is an understatement.
The Orlando Magic were a loose and confident bunch Thursday afternoon, almost oblivious to the dogfight in the Boston/Cleveland series that will determine their next opponent.
"I wouldn't necessarily say we're all that loose,'' said Rashard Lewis. "But we know what we have, and we're just about preparing ourselves right now for whoever comes next.''
After sweeping both their first- and second-round series against Charlotte and Atlanta with surprising ease, the Magic returned to practice after two days away, still brimming with confidence that comes from 14 consecutive victories (including the last six regular-season games).
They know the Eastern Conference final will be a considerably tougher challenge, but they also know they have become the favorite to reach the NBA Finals in June.
Whoever they face, they will be well-rested and ready. They were 3-1 against Boston during the regular season. They split their series against Cleveland. And they have peaked at the perfect time.
"It's really hard to play against us now,'' Nelson said. "When we play the game the right way, and do things the right way defensively, it's hard for the other team. We're getting stops, and then we're coming down, and Vince makes a three, or I'll make a three, or Dwight gets a dunk. It just keeps going, and snowballs on teams. Teams know that we sort of have them by the [throat].''
The Magic have five players averaging double-figure points in the playoffs, confident that they are balanced and deep enough to withstand a few rocky games by any of their top players.
"We have so many guys who can put up big numbers, so many scorers who can give it at any moment in any series,'' Carter said. "Jameer led us through the first series when we didn't play as well as a whole. Dwight and everyone else was there in the second. It's just about keeping it going now.''
Carter, in his 12th NBA season, will be playing in his first conference final, coming after the lowest scoring season (16.6 ppg) in his career. For years, he carried lesser teams, and more than anyone he empathized with LeBron James and his recent struggles against the Celtics.
"It's a tough situation to be in. You're the best player in the league, and to have that kind of scrutiny, it's tough,'' Carter said. "This is probably the first time he has gone through anything like this. But who better to talk to now than Shaq to help him navigate his way through this. He's pretty darn good, even on his worst nights.''
Magic coach Stan Van Gundy continued to caution anyone who suggested the Magic would be favored over the Boston/Cleveland winner. And he has not been surprised at how well the Celtics have played in this series.
Even without an opponent to prepare for, he ran a detailed and physical practice Thursday before all the foolishness began.
"I think you gain confidence every time you win in the playoffs, but with 6-7 days before the next series, you don't carry momentum for that long,'' he said. "No matter who we get in the next round, they're both great defensive teams. At this point, you can only stay ready as best you can.''