When the Orlando Magic lost to the Portland Trail Blazers in embarrassing fashion exactly two weeks ago by the score of 102-87, people began to wonder whether or not the players - the four All-Stars on the team, to be specific - on the roster would figure things out sooner or later. In essence, play up to the capabilities and expectations everyone had for the Magic before the year started. Or during Orlando's 17-4 start to the regular season. Take your pick.
A few days after, even though the Magic lost its long-awaited NBA Finals rematch with the Los Angeles Lakers, it was clear that the team was escaping its mid-season swoon and starting to make progress on the court. Fast-forward to now and the Big Four, with some help from the supporting cast, is leading the charge for Orlando as the team has won four of its last six games. Dwight Howard is playing like the top five player - in the Association - that he is, Rashard Lewis is performing relatively well, Jameer Nelson is exhibiting flashes of the All-Star player that he was this past season, and Vince Carter is chipping in here and there rather than dominating the basketball like he did earlier in the year. A step in the right direction, to be sure.
Yes, the Magic lost to an underrated Memphis Grizzlies squad a few days ago. But notice how Orlando lost. If anything, it felt more like a game the Magic gave away rather than one where the team was never in it to begin with, as was the case in a recent loss to the Blazers where anxiety levels in the city of Orlando were reaching unhealthy levels. If there's one thing people can take away from the Magic's last six games is the fact that the team has been competitive in each one of them. As such, Orlando is winning again because the team is putting itself in positions to win. Shocking, I know.
But how have the Magic been winning?
Click after the jump to find out why.
Two words, Dwight Howard.
Howard isn't the only reason why Orlando is turning things around as the All-Star break looms closer, because that would do a disservice to the other players on the team, but he's been the main reason. Howard has been a man possessed ever since his sub-par performance against Portland, where he allowed world beaters like Dante Cunningham, Juwan Howard, and Jeff Pendergraph contain him for 11 points, 11 rebounds, and 2 blocks. For a player of Howard's caliber, that type of mediocre play against that type of underwhelming competition is unacceptable. Something needed to change.
And something has changed.
Ever since the Blazers game, the Magic's offense has been Howard-centric - for the most part - and the team has been reaping the benefits. Yes, Orlando continues to neglect Howard on the offensive side of the ball for whatever reason but the neglecting hasn't been as bad as it has been in the past. As such, Howard has been able to impress on offense and have sterling performances against elite teams that have, historically, given him fits due to the respective personnel on the roster. Specifically, the Lakers and the Boston Celtics, with Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol, Kendrick Perkins, and Rasheed Wallace as the main players in question. It's no secret that Howard has had problems in previous meetings with Los Angeles and Boston because they are two of the few teams in the NBA with the size to bother him. But in what may be a storyline that should be followed closely, Howard didn't have many issues scoring on the Lakers or the Celtics. Not with dunks, mind you, but with post moves. By the way, Howard will have another chance to prove his mettle at Boston on February 7th. In any case, it'll be interesting to see if this trend continues and there's no guarantee that it will. But if it does, things change. Like the balance of power in the Eastern Conference, for example, not only this year but in the future.
As for Howard's defense, it's been excellent. Howard has been playing like a reigning Defensive Player of the Year should be. Erasing teammates' mistakes, providing help-side defense, rotating defensively, showing on the pick & roll, and more. Howard has been performing all these defensive principles at a high level and it's the reason why the Magic rank 5th in Defensive Rating, as of today. For all intents and purposes, Howard is Orlando's defense. The anchor. It's not all about Howard on the defensive side of the ball for the Magic, but at the same time, it is.
As long as Howard continues to be the focus of Orlando's offense and as long as he continues to play defense like he has been lately, the team should be okay as it waits for Carter and Nelson to fully snap out of their funks (after last night, it's safe to say that Lewis is out of his funk). Whether or not that happens remains to be seen but one thing is for sure, the Magic go as far as Howard takes them.
After all, he is Superman.