I was genuinely excited to see the Magic take on the Utah Jazz last night as the Jazz were, by far, the best team that the Magic had faced yet in this young season. I thought that the Magic's chances were a little better than normal considering that the Jazz were playing their second game in as many nights after narrowly escaping Charlotte with a win over the BETcats on Tuesday night. A special thanks for that near loss goes out to ex-Magician Keith Bogans who lit the Jazz up for a career high 28 in his first game for Charlotte. I was dissapointed to see the Magic trade Bogans earlier in the year as I believe he has legitimate Bruce Bowen/Trenton Hassell potential and was often the ONLY player on the Magic who was actually trying in many games late last year. Yet, it was the right move because Keith wasn't gonna get anytime in Orlando this year and being in Charlotte will give him a great opportunity to show the rest of the league what he can do. Wow. I don't think I've ever shown that much love to a Kentucky Wildcat and...wait...yep, I just threw up in my mouth.
As for the Magic, I can't remember a Magic team that was this much fun to watch. Sure the '99-'00 team was fun to watch with Doc Rivers cutting his teeth as a head coach and a team of 10 guys who all played hard, but Matt Harpring was the "star" and they finished 41-41. They were fun to watch in a "Boy these guys are scrappy" kind of way. This Magic team is just plain fun to watch. They have a couple stars (Francis, Hill), a few good supporting players who can step up from time to time (Mobley, Turkoglu), a bunch of other guys who know exactly what their role is (Garrity, Cato, Battie, Augmon, etc.) and a rookie who has as much potential as anybody who' s ever come into the league other than that new guy in Cleveland (and no, I'm not talking about Sasha Pavlovic).
With that being said, I still didn't really think that the Magic would win last night but I sat down anyway and here are a few of my observations:
The Magic miss Cuttino Mobley and will need him back before they can really think about contending, even in the East. DeShawn Stevenson has done an admirable job as the temporary starter but he doesn't stretch defenses the way Mobley does and without him Garrity becomes the Magic's only REAL threat from downtown.
I am completely unable to get a feel for DeShawn Stevenson. He's athletic, plays hard and generally makes good descisions but I don't know if he'll ever be any better than he is right now. He just seems like much more of an athlete than a basketball player. If there is one MAJOR complaint that I have about this years version of DeShawn Stevenson, its the lack of headband. For those who never saw it, Stevenson wore his headband last year at the top of his head, making it look like it he had just been smacked in the head while driving to the hoop. Except, he wore it like this ALL GAME. Fun for the whole family, I promise. Deshawn played great last night though against his old team and was big in the 4th for the Magic.
Speaking of big...Steve Francis has at least one big dunk a night and last nights may have been the best yet (though I'm still partial to the one on Erick Strickland) as he took off from outside the lane and flushed right on a completely shocked Matt Harpring. Francis is playing so much more free than last year when the Pallbearer, er Jeff Van Gundy had him playing in Norman Dale's offense. He is by no means the perfect point guard but he fits in really well with this team and Paul Westhead's running style. He does so many different things on the court that it just stifled him to be dropping the ball into the post on every possession. He felt like he wasn't impacting the game and this was having a serious effect on him psychologically (proof: He led the league in T's last year). Well, this year he is playing the style he wants to play and whether he plays good or bad, he is coming to play every night. Furthermore, and I don't think this can be underestimated, Grant Hill has been a great influence on Francis. Hill is so unselfish and team oriented that it seems be rubbing off on Francis's approach to the game to say nothing of the even-keeled veteran approach that Hill takes into every game. They seem to really enjoy playing with each other and their styles have complimented each other better than anybody could've imagined.
Which brings us to Grant Hill. I am still unwilling to make any predictions on how long this will last but if he continues to play at this level (or anywhere near it), you're looking at the starting Small Forward for the East in this year's All-Star Game. What Hill did to Andre Kirilenko in the second half last night was vintage stuff. Hill was hitting his once patented step-back jumper all over AK-47 who seemed genuinely afraid of Hill's first step. Who ever would have thought that DikembeMutombo would be afraid of Hill's first step at this point of his career, much less one of the two best defenders in the league? The scary part is...that Hill is still shaking off the rust from what amounts to a four year layoff. Can you imagine how good Hill will look (if still healthy) in March? I think its time for ESPN to break out that commercial of Grant Hill playing piano in the lobby again...I'm just saying.
Hedo Turkoglu: That sound you heard in July was the sound of me slamming my car door on my head (over and over) when I found out the Magic had signed Hedo for 6 years and $39 million. I was beside myself, actually saying things like why didn't we just go after Christian Drejer if we wanted a 6'10" softie to stand on the perimeter and brick threes all night. Hedo...I'm sorry. I was wrong. Sure I'd like to see him battle for a few more boards but Hedo has shown a much more aggrssive streak than I ever saw in Sactown or San Antonio. Its almost as if the established stars in those two franchises were too intimidating for Hedo to really blossom. That hasn't been a problem in Orlando as Hedo has been using his handle to get in the lane and or create space for 18 foot jumpers. He has been aggressive on both ends of the court and has even taken over a couple of long stretches in games this year (New Orleans, Washington). I'm not saying that we're looking at a guy who ever becomes an All-Star here but he could be a very, very good fourth option for a contender...something I would've never said two months ago. Plus, he's already got a spot on reserve for the "Kurt Rambis Ugly/Goofy Role Players" wing in Springfield.
Dwight Howard: I have admitted that I wanted Emeka Okafor. I admit that I was wrong. Howard was in early foul trouble last night (as is often the case so far this year) but he still managed to grab 12 boards. He has not a had a game with less than 10 rebounds yet this year. I don't care how old you are, that is UNBELIEVABLE for a rookie, much less one that still wears braces. He works his tail off on both ends of the court and never looks intimidated by anybody. We'll see how he reacts when he has to go into the Target Center or Conseco Fieldhouse but I, for one, feel pretty confident. His offensive game is coming around as well. The spin and dunk he had in Philly on Sunday was sick, sick, sick. Can you imagine what this kid did to 6'3" centers in the Atlanta Private School League. That's like my buddy Hildebrand playing on the short hoops at Gemini elementary. I know he's been playing well for the Cavs but does anybody in Orlando, other than the local...um...entertainers, miss Drew Gooden?
That's all I'll the Magic analysis that I'll torture you with today. The more anonymous role players will be highlighted in a week or so. I have to get my mind focused for Florida-FSU this weekend. Plenty of random thoughts on that matchup coming tommorrow. I bet you won't sleep tonight, will you?