- Jon Greenberg, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- It is common knowledge around the NBA that the road to the Finals will go through Miami and Chicago.
In fact, I'm not even sure Dwight Howard believes the Orlando Magic, with the third-best record in the East, can compete with the big two in a seven-game series before their inevitable conference finals matchup.
"We're third in the East," Howard said after Orlando ended the Bulls' eight-game win streak with a 99-94 win Thursday night. "We have the fifth-best record in the NBA, so we've been playing pretty good basketball. We just have to continue with games like this. We can't fall back and have a game like Charlotte and expect to be in the same group as Chicago and Miami. We have to play the same way every night."
And that's the problem for Orlando. It's an identity crisis with a private plane.
Howard, the face of the franchise, isn't a sure bet to be on the team in a week or next season. The Magic led Charlotte by 20 earlier this week, and lost by 16. Charlotte!
Michael Jordan nearly missed a 3-foot putt when he heard about that game the next day. His stogie was almost ruined.
Maturity, repetition and the uncertainty of Howard's status have been major problems for Orlando (26-15) all season. It's a tough team to rally behind, mostly because Howard, the dominant center of the post-Shaq NBA, has been the league's leading target of trade rumors. Every year a superstar is unhappy or at least cursed with a wandering eye.
Thursday night was a perfect encapsulation of the Magic's season. Orlando had a sizable lead against the Bulls in the first half, lost it, and then closed out the game late, partially because the Bulls went 1-for-13 on 3-pointers in the second half. A few shots fall down and it's a different game. Of course that's why Tom Thibodeau calls it "a make-or-miss league."
Orlando got off to a hot start as Howard took advantage of single coverage (I'd hate to see what Joakim Noah's chest looked like after multiple shots from Howard's shoulder) and the shooters bombed away, shooting 75 percent in the first quarter. Of course Orlando wound up shooting only 42 percent for the game. That's why Magic coach Stan Van Gundy is perpetually dissatisfied. Well, that and he's a Van Gundy.
"I haven't been real happy, I'll be honest," Van Gundy said before the game, echoing comments he made after the loss to the Bobcats and probably a thousand other times. "I'll say what's pleased me the most is we're a pretty resilient group. We'll have bad nights, we'll have bad periods in games and we will bounce back. We just have not established that we will play real hard and play together on a consistent basis."
Orlando is the NBA reality that gets coaches fired and players traded. It's a good team, don't get me wrong, but it's very typical. Everyone shoots 3s, guys clown at the end of the bench, no lead is safe and the superstar is looking for someone better. No one is quite sure where his head is at, but his game remains in good shape. All I think is the Magic are a good team that will never be great. Howard, who had 29 points, 18 rebounds and three blocks in the win, might feel the same way. In that sense, he's entitled to find a better fit.
If the Magic are the hard reality of a league where priorities are often in flux, the Bulls are the picture of the idealized NBA, the daydream of every coach with a whistle from the Y to the NBA. It's like paradise to every coach who has had to deal with an immature roster and immature effort.
Everyone plays defense, no lead is too big to overcome, sharing is the golden rule, and the superstar, Derrick Rose, is not only spectacular, a marketer's and fan's dream, but he sets an example so rigid everyone falls in line behind him. Nearly every coach who comes to play the Bulls raves about Thibodeau's coaching and Rose's placid dominance.
"His team plays hard every single night," Van Gundy said admiringly of Thibodeau. "And they play very well together every single night. I think everybody over there deserves a lot of credit but I think Tom obviously and the coaching job he's done over two years, there's been nobody in the league that's done a better job. There just hasn't.
"And another thing, they've got a great player in Derrick Rose, with a great attitude. He's a guy who's just all about winning and making his teammates better. It's not about him, it's not about gaining publicity and attention, it's not about his numbers. It's just about winning games."
Was Van Gundy comparing Rose to Howard? Maybe. Or perhaps just comparing the ideal to the reality. Rose is the ideal NBA player, a serious-minded basketball automaton. Does that make him more likely to win an NBA title than someone who goofs around occasionally? No, of course not.
I know there's a question about whether or not superstars want to play with Rose, but I guarantee every coach in the league wants to coach him. Van Gundy sounds like he'd love a Rose-for-Howard deal. Heck, I bet he'd even throw in Chris Duhon.
Van Gundy is dealing with what some would consider a typical NBA star and a team with a wavering attention span.
Thursday's loss was an anomaly for the Bulls, only their ninth of the season and just the third at the United Center. The Bulls had won eight straight going in and still have the best record in the league. They haven't lost back-to-back regular-season games since last February.
(Chicago hosts Utah on Saturday, New York on Monday and Miami on Wednesday.)
While Orlando searches for itself, the Bulls already know who they are and what they can do. The only question is how far can they go. And that's a pretty big question.
Rip Hamilton is out, likely for a couple weeks, with a shoulder injury. C.J. Watson has an ankle injury and now Luol Deng is admitting he might need a couple games off to rest his injured left wrist. You can see it bothering him during games as he toughs it out.
Could he miss Miami again? Probably. That's a disappointment for the fans. If all three miss considerable time coming up, don't expect to see the Bulls stay in first place much longer. But there should be no complaining, even with the raised standards that the Bulls' success has engendered.
This team has spoiled its fans, which is a good thing, don't get me wrong. Regular-season wins can still be enjoyed in the present -- if you didn't go nuts over Rose's game-winner in Milwaukee you're trying too hard to be a contrarian -- but they really don't carry much weight for the future.
But the future, while seemingly tangible, doesn't really matter until it's the present.
So instead of focusing only on the destination, and the comparisons to Jordan's Bulls overcoming the Detroit Pistons, don't forget to enjoy this season, because this Bulls team is something special. For everything people don't like about the NBA, the Bulls are the opposite, a basketball paradise.
Just ask anyone.
The Chicago Bulls are separated from the Orlando Magic by more than just winning percentage.