The Orlando Magic's loss to the Dallas Mavericks last night dropped them to 16-12 on the year was was their eighth defeat in their last nine games, but you may not know it based on the mood in the locker room after the game. Coach Stan Van Gundy, who might ordinarily fume under such circumstances, has instead dialed down the negativity and started preaching patience, both to his team and the media. That's not such a bad idea. After all, Orlando nearly defeated Dallas, which stands among the league's elite, despite the fact that four of the eight Magic players who saw action have yet to practice with the team. "I don't really have expectations," Van Gundy said prior to the game. "I just want to be better every night, that's all."
He got the desired result against the Mavericks despite the loss, so Van Gundy actually seemed upbeat following the game. He insisted he saw improvement--and anyone who watched Orlando's slog against the Atlanta Hawks the night before would agree with Van Gundy's assessment--and stressed the importance of continuing to improve. Van Gundy's casual dismissal of Dallas' 50-percent shooting took me aback:
"We gave up 50 percent but we made some mistakes down the stretch that were just because of us not being together in terms of our system."
And that was just in the first minute of Van Gundy's post-game presser, which lasted 15 minutes; for perspective, he lasted less than five minutes after Orlando's loss to the Philadelphia 76ers Saturday night, when the afternoon's trades left Orlando with only eight available players. Some of us in the media room speculated we'd see a similarly short session this time around, with a similarly peeved Van Gundy, Instead? We got Van Gundy repeatedly praising his team's effort. You could put some of his words in the mouth of a lottery-team coach and they wouldn't have sounded out of place.
What's astonishing here is we don't typically see this tactic from teams who fancy themselves contenders, and make no mistake, Orlando still sees itself that way. Team co-captain Dwight Howard said, with conviction, the Magic's trades won't "change our goal and our mission to win a championship," in his post-game scrum.
Nearly beating another elite team, at home, in December would not be of any consolation to the Boston Celtics, for instance. Yet the dynamic of Orlando's season changed dramatically when it made those two blockbuster deals on Saturday afternoon. Now, Orlando's playing catch-up with the contenders not just in the standings, but on the practice court. Wednesday afternoon, the Magic will practice for roughly two hours. It'll be the first time the Magic have practiced on the day after a second night of a back-to-back set in Van Gundy's three-plus seasons with the team. Given that Orlando plays the San Antonio Spurs on Thursday night, the Magic are set for four straight days of activity, a rarity in the NBA.
But they clearly need the work, which is why I dig Van Gundy's relaxed approach to the issue. He's working hard--don't take "relaxed" to mean "lazy"--but he knows he can't expect too much from a team that's been together for all of four days. It takes some pressure off the players and enables them to feel more at-ease, which is sure to help.
If you buy Van Gundy's conceit that Tuesday was the second day of training camp for this Magic team, you'd expect his patience to last another month or so. At this rate, the team sure will test it. Newcomers Gilbert Arenas, Jason Richardson, and Hedo Turkoglu, whom Magic President of Basketball Operations Otis Smith acquired because "we needed a little bit more punch" are a combined 13-of-53 from the floor for 48 points through two games.