Magic Eager and Confident to Face Miami
It's not for any other team in the league this season. And it's especially not for the Magic, whose in-state proximity, whose personal distaste for the team president, and whose growing resentment continues to build, making the matchup a classic in October.
"We can make a statement (Friday),'' Magic center Dwight Howard said after his team crushed the Washington Wizards in their season opener Thursday. "They (Heat) have to match up against us.''
While the two-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers are rightfully bothered by being overshadowed by the Heat and their trio of stars, no one in the league has taken the praise/hate/attention in Miami as personal as the Magic, a good team mostly forgotten.
"We better get used to it,'' sighed Magic forward Rashard Lewis. "It's all anyone talks about. If ESPN is not talking about Miami, you think there's something wrong with ESPN. It just adds fuel to the fire for us.''
The Celtics may have beaten the Heat in Boston to open the season earlier this week, but nothing would stir the pot like the Heat losing their home opener -- which is sure to be grand -- to Orlando.
"We know it's going to be a circus there,'' Howard said. "It's going to be crazy, but if we do things right on the defensive end, we'll be all right. You go into a game all hyped up and emotional, but it wears off as the game goes on. If we weather the storm early, we should win.''
The Heat/Magic rivalry has simmered mostly on low since the two came into the league in back-to-back seasons (1988 and 1989). It rarely grew heated over the years because one team was usually down when the other was up. They have met only once in the playoffs, which is where rivalries normally grow in intensity.
Now for the first time, they both should be good together, potentially fighting for a spot in the NBA Finals and a chance at a championship that both teams now feel should be theirs.
It doesn't hurt that Riley replaced Van Gundy the season the Heat won their championship, leaving some resentment that still hasn't died. Van Gundy, along with Magic general manager Otis Smith, exchanged some personal, cutting remarks with Riley this summer, stemming from the free agent signings.
And while Van Gundy tried to steer clear of adding any significance to the meeting Friday, his players still feel it.
"It is one of 82 games we play, but I'm sick of listening every hour about Miami, about how great they are going to be, how big and important they are,'' said Magic backup center Marcin Gortat. "We've got a pretty good team here. All you hear about are Miami's three superstars.''
While Dwyane Wade has baffled the Magic in recent years, sometimes beating them by himself, the addition of two-time MVP LeBron James and All-Star Chris Bosh should make it even easier. Conversely, Howard is the league's best center, a position where the Heat are the weakest.
"Winning tomorrow doesn't mean you win the championship. It's only our second game of the season,'' Howard continued. "Our focus is not to get all the media attention, all the hype. We just want to win a championship.''
The Magic, beaten by Boston last spring in the conference final, has been quietly impressive this fall, even if no one else cared. They won all seven exhibition games by an average of 26 points. They won their opener against the dreadful Wizards by 29 points. Now they will play the game they've been waiting to play for months.
"We understand that fans get all excited every time the Heat play,'' Van Gundy said. "But we play a lot of good teams in the NBA, and we play them on back-to-back nights. The season is not going to be decided one way or the other on tomorrow night. We'll prepare for it like any other game.''