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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, May 12, 2010

NFL: Top 10 reasons why this version of the Magic is better than last season’s

By Brian Schmitz
The Orlando Sentinel

ORLANDO, Fla. — Dennis "3-D" Scott has a confession to make: He believes the 2009-10 Orlando Magic are the best team in the history of the franchise — even better than his old Magic club. The gold standard always has been the Shaquille O'Neal-Penny Hardaway team of the mid-90's that played in the NBA Finals in 1995.

"They're better than us," said Scott, who lives in Atlanta. "We had a great starting five, but they're deeper. Gotta better bench."

The Magic have stormed through the playoffs at 8-0, ousting Charlotte and Atlanta. They emerged from the first two rounds last season at 8-5, going 4-2 against Philadelphia and 4-3 against Boston.

Here's our Top 10 countdown why the Magic appear to be a better team this postseason than last season:

The return of Mighty Mouse. That's Dwight Howard's nickname for point guard Jameer Nelson, along with "Crib Midget." Nelson missed the first three rounds last season before making the ill-advised comeback in the NBA Finals. Finally healthy, Nelson has been sensational — and could be the difference in winning a title. Nelson beautifully blended his scoring (17.3) with playmaking (24 assists, six turnovers) against Atlanta, rivaling Steve Nash and Rajon Rondo as the postseason's best point guard.

Styles make fights. It's all about match-ups in the playoffs. In this season's second-round pairing, the Magic drew the Hawks — a mentally fragile team they've beaten 10 times in the last 11 meetings. Last postseason, they drew the reigning champion Celtics in Round Two. Although impressive, Orlando's lopsided sweep of Atlanta should be tempered a bit. "We can't get big-headed," Nelson said.

Get Carter. The Magic's championship-or-bust moves last summer included acquiring Vince Carter and letting go of Hedo Turkoglu, and it's still being played out. But on Carter's watch, the Magic again posted 59 wins, so points go to Otis Smith's side of the board. At 33, Vinsanity isn't as consistently brilliant, but he's coming off a solid series against Atlanta. The big stage is set. Can Vince come through as Mr. Go To if the Magic need to go through LeBron and Kobe?

Just Dwight. Howard was expected to appear at a local premier of his movie, "Just Wright," on Tuesday night. On the screen, it's the only time he's ever a role player. Howard is better than last season, even if his offensive numbers were down a little. He showed maturity to repeat as defensive player of the year. But he's still learning the mental side of the game at 24. He recovered nicely in the Atlanta series after mishandling his first-round jousts with the refs. Key for Orlando now is whether Dwight can avoid foul trouble.

Buying into the cause. Seems simple. Everybody breaks from the huddle and yells, "Championship!" But it's a fragile thing, chemistry. The Magic began the season talking about individuals making sacrifices for the greater good. They've looked like a true team, sharing the ball and sharing laughs, responding to Stan Van Gundy's buggy-whip. "We don't care who gets the most points," Howard said. "We all want to win."

MB for MP. Van Gundy replaced Mickael Pietrus with Matt Barnes at starting small forward after the Magic's Christmas Day loss to Boston, and it eventually solidified the lineup and bench. In playing Turkoglu's old spot, Barnes gives the Magic something they lacked — defensive grit and hustle plays. Pietrus is more suited for his gunslinger role off the bench.

Deep pockets. The Magic's bench is deeper than last season's — and might the best in franchise history. Owner Rich DeVos gave them the green light to delve into the luxury tax to keep Marcin Gortat and sign Brandon Bass. Pietrus, Gortat, J.J. Redick, Ryan Anderson and Jason Williams all helped the Magic compile the league's second-best record.

Defense never rests. Not with Howard repeating as blocks leader. The Magic led the league in holding the opposition from the field (43.8 percent), up from third last season. They held the Hawks to 37 percent.

Size might matter. Howard can dominate most teams. But he was outnumbered in the Finals when the Lakers played 7-footers Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum and 6-10 Lamar Odom. The Magic are back with the same bigs as last season, given Bass sits. Rashard Lewis still can't match up with Gasol in a Lakers-Magic rematch. Can Orlando win with depth?

Stan Van Rant. The ever-relentless Van Gundy decided not to be so negative this season, and it helped. "Sometimes he's nice and he can get mean . . . we like that," Howard said. "We like somebody who challenges us to get better." Van Gundy played to win down the stretch and earned the Magic home-court advantage should they reach the Finals.