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Off-Day Open Thread: The Magic, the Pistons, and "Mental Toughness"

Note: I wrote this post before last night's Game Two between the Magic and the Pistons.

Last week, Ellen of the Cavaliers blog And One posted this thoughtful rundown of mental toughness in sports using a 2007 article from The Sports Psychologist as a backdrop. As the Magic face the Detroit Pistons, a team famous for playing mind games with its opponents, in these playoffs, it seems pertinent to discuss the Pistons' mental advantage: other than skill, what sets them apart from the Magic?

The Sports Psychologist article which Ellen referenced breaks-up mental toughness into this framework. Refer to the scans at And One for the full explanation of each sub-category:

  1. Attitude/Mindset
    • Belief
    • Focus
  2. Training
    • Using long-term goals as the source of motivation
    • Controlling the environment
    • Pushing yourself to the limit
  3. Competition
    • Handling pressure
    • Belief
    • Regulating performance
    • Staying focused
    • Awareness and control of thoughts and feelings
    • Controlling the environment
  4. Postcompetition
    • Handling failure
    • Handling success

The branch in which I have the most interest is "Attitude/mindset." How do the inexperienced Magic, in just the second year of the Dwight Howard Playoff Era, compare with the veteran Pistons, which have made the Eastern Conference Finals in each of the last five seasons with the same core of players? One of the tenets of "Attitude/mindset," as the article explains, is "Having and unshakable self-belief as a result of total awareness of how you got to where you are now." Consider that, then examine this quote from Pistons guard Chauncey Billups, courtesy John Denton:

"That's what we do. We play physical and we feed off other teams when they try to be physical on us," he said. "It's like somebody coming to you house and doing exactly what you wanted. They feed right into what you wanted them to do. (The Magic) play hard, but they don't play as physical as us, but they shoot that three-pointer. If they can do that, they have a chance. But if they want to rough it up, it's going to be tough."

Of course, the Magic know what they have to do. Here's Keyon Dooling, from the same Denton article:

"More so than getting caught up in their physical game, we've got to take care of us," Dooling said. "We've got to make our shots and do what we've been doing all year."

Another tenet is "Having an inner arrogance that makes you believe that you can achieve anything you set your mind to." If there's any single word that describes the Pistons' demeanor, it's "arrogant." Heck, it sure didn't take long for Pistons center Theo Ratliff, who's been with the Pistons for fewer than three months, to adopt Detroit's trademark swag:

"Look at the [veteran big] guys we have. We've already played against the greatest who ever played -- Hakeem [Olajuwan], [Patrick] Ewing, David Robinson -- there is nobody we haven't seen or guarded," said Pistons backup center Theo Ratliff. "Sure, Dwight is an imposing player, but it's not something we're really worried about."

The Pistons aren't worried about containing Howard, the Magic's All-Star center and overall best player? Well, why should they be? His attitude in this series leaves much to be desired. Let's set the scene with two quotes, the first from Pistons forward Jason Maxiell, one of the four different Pistons who defended Dwight in Game One, telling reporters explaining how he and his teammates held our Superman in-check:

"You pretty much just have to get underneath him [Howard] and you're OK," Maxiell said. "He has really strong, broad shoulders, but you get down low and take his legs out from under him. He's not very powerful down low because his legs aren't very strong. There are ways to play him."

When informed of these comments, Magic coach Stan Van Gundy agreed with Maxiell's assessment, saying that Dwight needs a "stronger base." But Dwight himself disagreed, saying flatly, "That's not true. Trust me." So Dwight says he believes in himself, but does that sound bite actually convince you of anything? If anything, it sounds like Dwight's trying to convince himself.

But it gets worse. After the game, Howard said, "I don't think I even looked up at the scoreboard for a while. It's disappointing." Those are disconcertingly weak words for a guy who dominated the first round of the playoffs by having three games of 20-plus points and 20-plus rebounds in the series. Where are those performances? Where is the intensity he showed in the first round when he earned a technical foul after getting in Carlos Delfino's face after Delfino tried to hack him on a dunk attempt? Maybe Rasheed Wallace was right when he likened Dwight to his "intern." Dwight can't be afraid to man-up against Wallace or any of his teammates.

It should go without saying that Dwight Howard is the Magic's key to success, now and in the future. He must get himself back on track after a disastrous Game One in which he scored 12 points and grabbed 8 rebounds -- well below his averages. The Magic have no chance to win this series with Dwight struggling so mightily, especially when Tayshaun Prince shuts-down Hedo Turkoglu, the Magic's other big scoring threat. "Superman" must punish Maxiell, Wallace, Ratliff, and Antonio McDyess -- the foursome which RaptorsForum dubbed Detroit's "Legion of Doom" -- by attacking the basket as soon as he receives the ball and by being more active on the offensive boards. The Pistons are a great team, to be sure, but they aren't invincible. Dwight can be, when he wants to.

Advantage, Magic.