By Steve Aschburner
May 28, 2009

Over time, the Phoenix Suns lost faith that their tireless, high-scoring brand of basketball ever was going to pay off for them in the playoffs. Convinced by results on the floor and harangues from critics that "seven seconds or less" forever would limit them to three rounds or fewer, the Suns dismantled themselves and most of what made them special. They shed Shawn Marion, went 180 by acquiring Shaquille O'Neal, hired (and soon thereafter fired) Terry Porter as head coach with a mandate to toughen up the team defensively, fiddled and tweaked some more on the fringes and ultimately reconfigured themselves out of the postseason entirely.

The Orlando Magic never looked much like a team built for the playoffs either. Yet look at them now. (Question: When a team from Orlando wins a major sports championship, does it get to go somewhere a little more exotic than Disney World? That's like you or me celebrating one of life's highlights by heading all the way to the corner Starbucks.)

There are still miles to go before the Magic reach the destination they and their fans crave. Curvature of the Earth, even, between them and the glint way beyond the horizon of the golden Larry O'Brien Trophy. Coach Stan Van Gundy and his crew are smart to soft-sell such suggestions and stamp down any premature giddiness, because they would face a frothing Western Conference opponent in the best-of-seven Finals even if they manage to survive 48, 96 or 144 more minutes against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

But let's concede that Orlando has reached at least one considerable milestone in these 2009 playoffs: The point where it no longer has to hear how ill-suited it is for the almighty challenge of playoff basketball. The Magic's 11-6 record from start through hump game of the conference finals demonstrates that, along with their seasoning from seven postseason games decided by three points or less, their ability to win not only when shooting well but shooting meh and a defensive stinginess more common among clubs that play scrum-by-scrum.

If fact, if I were an NBA fan residing in Phoenix, I'd be wondering if maybe that old gang of ours got broken up a little too zealously. And prematurely.

"All we['ve] got to do is come out and play Magic basketball," Dwight Howard said the other day. "We run, move the ball and defend. Like I have been telling you guys, we can beat anybody. And those are going to be the three things. Run, move the ball, and play defense."

Well, OK, maybe the Suns weren't up to task No. 3 on that short list. But Orlando has been, with a formula only slightly more complex than Howard's Winning For Dummies version.

What the Magic do so well from casual observation, and why it has worked so effectively in this postseason, are somewhat different things. Yes, their basic offensive formation is one inside, four outside, largely reliant on Howard as a one-man crew down low and a bevy of marksmen to rival Navy SEALs on a pirate shoot. But it's who those shooters are and how their shots are generated that separate them from other NBA hothouse lilies, those clubs that rise or fall on the millimeters that randomly separate makes from misses and winners from losers among jump-shooting teams. Several of Orlando's shooters are match-up problems even when they're not launching, such as 6-foot-10 Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu, who can post up or create off the dribble, respectively, when they're not playing catch-and-shoot. Or Mickael Pietrus, who wasn't much of a finisher in the past but still has the ability to slash, while developing into a corner three-pointer man on par with San Antonio's Bruce Bowen.

Howard almost nightly is outnumbered in the paint, since Lewis mostly stays outside and the Magic play no other big in tandem with their Defensive Player of the Year the way, say, the Spurs always have had a heavy lifter alongside Tim Duncan. But being outnumbered -- the way Cleveland can do it with Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Anderson Varejao and Ben Wallace -- isn't the same thing as being outquicked or outmaneuvered, and as long as Howard can hit seven out of every 10 free throws, he and his team aren't even vulnerable to being outhacked. As his offensive game grows, so grows the floor space between any defenders who collapse and the guys in stripes, triggers cocked, ringing the perimeter.

Oh, and if Lewis isn't the ideal power forward to have as a helper for Howard, Howard is precisely the sort of center to enable Lewis' game, whether you consider it "soft" or not. (Have you noticed that, over the past two postseasons, only six players in the NBA have averaged at least 17 points, five rebounds, three assists and one steal, and that Lewis is among them? The others: Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Andre Iguodala.)

It's important not to overlook Orlando's utilization of pick-and-rolls, too, to free up its primary offensive weapons. Or, for that matter, the flappable but effective Van Gundy's knack for adjusting and attacking mismatches as they present themselves, even if it leads to what some would have feared as an over-reliance on heretofore erratic Rafer Alston.

Defensively, the Magic have become masterful at funneling penetrating opponents into Howard, who is more adept than your average 7-footer at halting, challenging and altering or blocking shots without fouling. OK, fouling, too, to the point of disqualification three times in the playoffs and to the brink (five personals) four more. But it has paid off: Opponents are averaging 92.8 points, shooting 44.5 percent and have scored fewer than 100 points 13 times. Orlando is 8-0 when holding playoff foes under 90.

One thing that gets neglected in pronouncements about which teams are or are not built for playoff basketball is the reality that no team plays all 15 other entrants. It might be true -- regrettable but true -- that the officiating is allowed to change, permitting more contact in the spring than it does from fall through winter. It is obvious that, overall, the pace of play changes, as does the evidence of effort and hustle. But a trek to a championship or the Finals or however far a team goes still is determined by its unique clashing and meshing with each opponent.

The Magic had more assets playing well against Philadelphia and Boston, and ducking Garnett and Leon Powe helped immensely in beating the Celtics. Now their personnel and their tactics create headaches that Cleveland can't Advil away, even if other clubs could. It doesn't matter for the moment what's going on over in the West or how physical the play in other series has become. It won't, either, unless or until Orlando actually gets pitted against whoever is left standing.

Everything the Magic have accomplished since mid-April argues persuasively against any claims or concerns they are not fit for postseason success. Even the stats that don't go their way say something profound, that maybe Orlando's crew is tougher internally than they've been given credit for. They are, for instance, 5-0 when shooting better than 50 percent, but 6-6 when they don't; their opponents are 4-0 but 2-11 by the same standards. Orlando is 5-2 when it gets fewer free throws than the other guys, 7-3 when it gets fewer assists, 6-5 when it is outrebounded and 5-3 on nights it turns over the ball more often.

That suggests a resourcefulness that most playoff teams would kill for. Like the proverbial handsome and Forrest Gump's stupid, mentally tough is as mentally tough does, or so it has gone for the Orlando Magic.

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