By Ryan McNeill
As narrow as it seems, the window of opportunity for the Orlando Magic is still very much open.
Returning from last season’s team that fell short against the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals are 10 players already accustomed to the way Magic Coach Stan Van Gundy runs the show.
Throw in the additions of Quentin Richardson and Chris Duhon, and you’ve got a group of guys with the flexibility to play multiple positions. Not to mention players who are not shy about believing there is a chance to once again compete for a spot in the NBA Finals.
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“Our guys were genuinely pained by what happened last year,” said Van Gundy.
It wasn’t so much that they lost earlier than expected, but unlike leaving everything they had on the floor two seasons ago in the finals against the Los Angeles Lakers, there was a collective feeling that the team was pushed around by the Celtics.
After some summer soul-searching, the coach noticed the team’s commitment and motivation over the offseason was at a higher level. As if they really have to look far for the extra motivation.
The journey back to the top in the East begins in the preseason with the opener on the road against the Houston Rockets on Tuesday.
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“By not getting to the finals and winning the championship last year is motivation,” said Rashard Lewis. “Getting beat up by the Boston Celtics last year is motivation; Chris Bosh and LeBron James going to the Miami Heat is motivation; Amare Stoudemire going to the Knicks is motivation; the Chicago Bulls getting better is motivation. There’s a lot of stuff.”
That most have already pegged the new-look Miami Heat as conference champions is just another reason this group is focused on wrapping up a fourth-straight 50-win season and Southeast Division title.
“Everybody is going to talk about Miami, but most important for us is to stay together,” said Mickael Pietrus. “Right now we are still the underdog. We are going to have to stay together through the entire season and make sure that every time we come out here we work hard.”
The Magic seem to always be the underdog.
Last week when camp opened in Orlando there seemed to be more of a workmanlike nature to things than in year’s past. Dwight Howard hardly smiled. There was little child’s play from one of Central Florida’s most lovable characters.
Perhaps the realization has set in that just because you’ve reached the Promised Land once, doesn’t mean that the paved road is still in place to do it again. King James and the Cleveland Cavaliers made the finals following the 2007 season and barely sniffed it since.
“I’ve had the opportunity to play with some great guys and we’ve never had the chance to win a championship until a couple years ago,” said Howard. “And half the guys from that team are not here. I tell my teammates all the time that you don’t want to take nothing for granted. Life is too short and you want to take advantage of every opportunity that you have.”
Since the resurgence of the Orlando Magic in Van Gundy’s first season of 2007-08 – which ended with the first playoff series win for the franchise in 12 years – just five core players are still on the roster.
Among them are Howard, Lewis, Jameer Nelson, J.J. Redick and Marcin Gortat. After doing away with the Toronto Raptors that year, the Detroit Pistons sent the Magic packing in the second round.
“The window of opportunity opens and closes, and right now the window is still open for us,” said Lewis. “We’re here again this year just fighting to get back.”