The Orlando Magic won 118 games in the past two seasons, more than the Celtics. They captured five playoff series, second only to the Lakers. They have arguably the leading MVP candidate in Dwight Howard, a perennial Coach of the Year candidate in Stan Van Gundy and enough accurate outside shooters to hold their own three-point contest at All-Star Weekend. Last season, they had the best defense in the NBA, swept their first two playoff opponents and took a 14-game winning streak into the Eastern Conference finals. They were championship contenders, and less than a week later, they were frauds.
What happened during that week -- three straight losses to the Celtics, two at home, one by blowout -- still hangs over the Magic six months later, threatening to define them. There is no great shame in losing to the Celtics in the conference finals, a fate that has befallen many. But there is lingering concern over how they lost: Vince Carter shrinking, Rashard Lewis evaporating, Howard left to fend for everyone else.
"We're still trying to grow from that and I honestly don't know if we have or not," Magic general manager Otis Smith said. "I'd like to think we would handle the situation better next time, but I'm not sure. I'm not sure if they learned anything or not."
Smith was tempted to make drastic roster changes last summer, but he reminded himself of all the good that came out of the season, and he decided to give his core another shot. The results have been mixed. The Magic are 16-9, with Howard playing perhaps the best basketball of his career, and Brandon Bass emerging as the reliable power forward Smith envisioned when he signed him as a free agent in 2009. But the Magic have lost five of their last six games, staggering through a brutal West Coast trip in which Howard questioned the team's toughness and Van Gundy said he was reminded of the Celtics series all over again. Van Gundy is typically candid, but Howard's outburst was uncharacteristic.
"Until everybody steps up on the team and mans up," Howard told reporters, "then teams are going to throw their best punch at us and we're going to fold."
For everything the Magic have accomplished in recent years, they have failed to find and develop a suitable complement for Howard. They paid $118 million to Lewis, but he has become less productive ever since he arrived. They sent three players to New Jersey for Carter, but he is not the one-on-one force he used to be. Both were exposed against Boston -- Lewis averaging eight points in the series and shooting 17 percent from three-point range, Carter averaging 13.7 points and shooting 21.1 percent from three-point range. The Magic hoped those were blips instead of trends, a testament to the Celtics' swarming defense, but Carter is averaging 15.1 points this season, on pace for a career low, and Lewis is averaging 12.2, on pace for a 10-year low. Both have seen their three-point percentages fall by more than two full points, as if the Celtics' defense has followed them.
Carter and Lewis insist that the series has no carryover -- "Just a few bad games," Carter said -- and that it's much too early for concern. No one pays attention to the Magic, it seems, unless they struggle. They will still make the playoffs, and because of Howard and their long-range shooting, they will always be a threat. They are neither juggernauts nor frauds, just another upper-echelon team trying to figure out if its problems are fixable or fundamental.
"We know that Boston is in our way, but I think we can beat them," Lewis said. "It's not going to be easy, but I'm 100 percent confident we can beat Boston."
Confidence is crucial for these Magic, perhaps more so than any of the other elites. They are not as fast as the Heat, as big as the Lakers or as physical as the Celtics. Their success hinges largely on defense and ball movement, dumping it down into Howard, and back out again for open threes.
"When we're playing with confidence, the ball is really moving, and when we aren't, it has a tendency to stick," Smith said. "The mental aspect is a big part of our game because we have a tendency to get down on ourselves. I still think this team has a chance to win. But it's another thing for them to think that."
Smith is the rare general manager who accompanies his team on virtually every road trip, constantly assessing its state. He could scout more college players, but none of them will be able to help for a couple of years, and in Orlando the time is clearly now. Howard will be a free agent after next season, an unsettling notion for the Magic, who already lost one affable young big man before he really reached his prime. So as not to repeat the Shaquille O'Neal experience, the Magic must surround Howard with more than spot-up shooters. Smith acknowledges the possibility of change, but Carter is not the chip he once was and Lewis' contract is likely too burdensome to move. The Magic do have depth, though probably not enough to enter the Carmelo Anthony sweepstakes.
Smith yearns to bring Orlando its first championship -- pictures of the Larry O'Brien Trophy hang in every player's locker -- and he will have to decide by the Feb. 24 trade deadline if this roster is capable of turning those facsimiles into the real thing. But he may not fully know by then. The true test of what the Magic learned last spring, and whether they grew from it, will come well after the deadline.
"For a team like ours, it will come down to the next playoff series," Smith said. "That's when we'll really know."