1. New-Look Magic Find The Range Against Spurs
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Ninety minutes before tipoff of Thursday's game, Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy joked that his biggest challenge was still trying to match the names and jersey numbers of his team's four newcomers in the aftermath of last week's two major trades.
Then came the laugher.
By the time the final buzzer sounded after his team's 123-101 dismantling of the San Antonio Spurs, Van Gundy and the Magic were no longer strangers to victory. The recently reeling Magic ended their four-game losing streak by rolling past a Spurs team with the NBA's best record.
In ending San Antonio's 10-game winning streak, the Magic delivered a performance that paints a more promising face on the makeover that jettisoned Rashard Lewis, Vince Carter, Mickael Pietrus and Marcin Gortat and brought in Gilbert Arenas, Jason Richardson, Hedo Turkoglu and Earl Clark.
Afterward, Van Gundy and his team were faced with a new dilemma. Was Thursday's annihilation of the surging Spurs (25-4) an aberration for Orlando? Or was the therapeutic victory a sign of what could be in store for the potentially explosive Magic (17-12), which had lost eight of their previous nine games?
"We've been together four days," Van Gundy said after arguably the Magic's most impressive win of the season. "I'm not going to sit up here and pretend I have all of the answers. What it does is it shows what's possible with this group. We still have to get a lot better. There's a long way to go, and you're not going to be able to run up and down like that every night. This is a [heck] of a win for us."
At least there's not more guess work with what this Magic team is capable of becoming when everyone grows acclimated with one another. After changing his starting lineup in each of the past five games, which included a stretch before Saturday's trades, Van Gundy saw levels of cohesion and chemistry Thursday normally associated with teams that have played together four years, not four days.
The Magic, which rank among the league's least productive teams in transition scoring, blew through the Spurs for a 30-2 advantage in fast-break points. Of the 11 Orlando players who saw action against the Spurs, 10 of them finished with at least one assist on a night the team totaled 31.
Newcomers led the way. Arenas, Richardson and Turkoglu shot a combined 13-of-53 from the field through their first two games after the trade in losses to Atlanta and Dallas before they could even go through a practice session with their new team. On Thursday, those three were a far more efficient 18-of-38 from the field and accounted for 40 points, 16 assists and 11 rebounds.
Add in 17 points apiece from J.J .Redick and Brandon Bass, and its the kind of supporting cast contribution that make the Magic dangerous on night's when Dwight Howard had another remarkably routine effort with 29 points and 14 rebounds.
"This is what we expect," Howard said. "Are we going to score 120 points every night? We don't know. But just the effort we've had is something we expect every night. It feels good to see everybody on the same page, knowing this is how we have to play every night for us to be successful. We're not playing for December and January. We're playing for June."
The Magic still have a few kinks to work out between now and the postseason. It starts with settling on a rotation with an imbalanced roster. There are four point guards and only one true center, Howard.
Should Arenas consistently produce at the level he did Thursday -- 14 points, nine assists, six rebounds -- it could create an uncomfortable situation at point guard, where Jameer Nelson has been entrenched as the starter. Van Gundy was non-committal as to whether he could envision Arenas starting, but didn't completely rule out the possibility that Nelson could come off the bench.
In either case, he said there would be enough minutes to go around, with the primary perimeter players likely to average between 28-32 minutes a game. Arenas wanted no part of either that discussion or any potential disruption in his new surroundings.
"I'm coming off the bench," Arenas said, when asked if he could see himself challenging for a starting role. "I don't want to start. This team is too talented."
At some point, the Magic must also get Howard some help in the post. Again, Van Gundy was in a joking mood when he suggested he'd play Howard all 48 minutes each night. Howard had a relatively light night of work Thursday. He played 32 minutes in a game Orlando blew open in the third quarter.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was impressed with the personnel moves by the Magic, and believes they will again be a title contender once everyone settles into their new roles. Thursday was only a hint of what might be in store if Orlando reaches its potential.
"Personally, I think they've got a hell of a chance that this is going to make it right," Popovich said of the Magic's moves. "They know what they need. They know if they're good enough or not. They know if the team has the belief. They know if the trust is there, if the confidence is there. They know if a change had to be made. They've been in the Finals. They know what it takes. The fact they did what they did tells you they knew a change had to be made. You have to believe that's the right decision."
2. An Audience With The Greatest
PHOENIX -- Leaning in with a giddy smile, LeBron James draped his arm around the legend sitting next him for a photo that gave him a rare quality. For a second, James looked like just a fan.
That defined the nice moment James shared with Muhammed Ali during halftime of the Heat's 95-83 victory over the Suns on Thursday night. Several players stopped by for photo ops with the living legend, treatment Jack Nicholson doesn't even enjoy.
James had met Ali before but said: "It feels like the first time every time you get an opportunity to see him and shake hands with him. He's by far one of the top two greatest athletes ever. He did more for sports than just boxing. No athlete will ever be able to compare what he did in the ring and outside the ring."
Who else is in James' top two? He mentioned Michael Jordan and then added Pele. Depends on taste, probably.
Out in the Heat's proverbial ring, they were missing one of their top two against the Suns, as Dwyane Wade was a late scratch with a sore knee. It appears that the decision to sit Wade was precautionary and he'd likely be ready to play on Christmas against the Lakers in Los Angeles.
3. Daily Dime Live Recap
ESPN.com writers and TrueHoop Network bloggers chatted with fans and gave their in-game opinions throughout Thursday's games -- all in Daily Dime Live.
4. Extreme Behavior
LeBron James, Heat: With the Heat contending with another Jared Dudley eruption, LeBron James held down the fort with Dwyane Wade sidelined. Rising in the East, the King netted 36 points in the warmup win over Phoenix.
Tyreke Evans, Kings: The reigning rookie of the year went for a season-low four points on 2-13 shooting in an 84-79 loss to the Bucks. Evans' field-goal percentage is now in danger of falling below 38 percent for the reeling Kings.
TWEET OF THE NIGHT
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
"The league was great. It wasn't as watered down as it is [now]."
-- LeBron James, reflecting on the greater star density of the 1980s and the need for contraction.
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Mysterious Deer
Matt (Wisconsin): Can you explain the Bucks? Win at Dallas, destroy Lakers in L.A., beat Orlando, take Spurs and Celts to the limit on the road, pound Hawks in Atlanta and Knicks at home. And lose to the Wolves, Philly, Detroit. ... As inconsistent as any team in the league?
John Hollinger: Actually, I can't. Seriously. I've got nothing. They have me completely bewildered. Between the assorted injuries and the wild game-to-game fluctuations, I have no idea if they're good or bad at this point. Although I still suspect they'll make the playoffs when all is said and done.
7. Wrath Of Earl
8. Christmas Litmus Test
"Mama there goes that Meme!" is a HoopSpeak.com feature in which Beckley Mason and Ethan Sherwood Strauss, like curious extraterrestrials, probe, abuse and ultimately learn from a popular media meme. In this special Christmas edition, the guys examine why it is we're so drawn to this Christmas Day matchup.
Ethan: On Christmas, millions will bask in a Heat-Lakers game so hyped, it's hard to fathom how basketball will still exist in its aftermath. While Saturday's Miami-Los Angeles mega-battle probably won't implode the sport, it will decide how we go back and frame our preconceived notions about both teams.
The media after a Lakers loss: "The Lakers win in the playoffs, the regular season means nothing. I now smugly chuckle at your silly, naive overreactions."
The media after a Heat loss: "This shows that Miami doesn't have what it takes to win like the Lakers do. Perhaps LeBron lacks that brutal killer instinct -- you know, the one displayed by flicking your wrist under a ball."
With apologies to the Heat Index, the game does not matter. In fact, it sort of mirrors Christmas itself. We build up the moment, then quickly flee like Harold Hill exiting River City. I vaguely recall the last LeBron-Kobe Christmas game. The ascendant Cavs stepped into Staples and stepped over the Lakers. Five months later, confetti and champagne rained, decking the halls of that same arena. The Lakers had won yet another title. The Cavs weren't even in the building.
9. Shades Of Vernon Maxwell Spurs
The Magic defeated the Spurs, 123-101, on 59.5 percent shooting from the floor (50-for-84). That was the highest field-goal percentage in a game against San Antonio since Washington went 43-for-72 (59.7 percent) against them on St. Patrick's Day in 1997 -- the year before Tim Duncan was drafted by the Spurs.