The Orlando Magic had the Southeast Division all but wrapped up at last season's All-Star break, but there's a much tighter race to worry about with two months to play in 2009-10.
After 54 games to jell, Stan Van Gundy's now-healthy club is feeling pretty good about its chances.
Orlando returns to action Wednesday night against the Detroit Pistons looking for an eighth win in nine games at Amway Arena.
The Magic (36-18) couldn't simply pick up where they left off after making the NBA finals last season, instead using the early part of the season to acclimate five new players while playing through Rashard Lewis' 10-game suspension for an elevated testosterone level.
Jameer Nelson missed a month following left knee surgery and Vince Carter has struggled at times to fit in after essentially trading places with playoff star Hedo Turkoglu, but suddenly Orlando looks to be coming together. After briefly falling behind Atlanta in the Southeast, the Magic won 10 of 12 - including seven of eight at home - before losing 115-106 at Cleveland last Thursday.
Orlando leads the Hawks by 1 1/2 games, and while it's hardly the 7 1/2-game cushion at last season's break, the Magic are confident while focusing on the bigger picture.
"This is our chance. This is the last 28 games and we need to make that push for playoff positioning,'' said Carter, who averaged 22.5 points over his last six games after a miserable January in which he averaged 8.7 points and shot 28.4 percent. "We want to try to play our best basketball going right into the playoffs. This is the time.''
The last game of January epitomized Carter's struggles - he shot 1 of 8 and had two points at Detroit (19-33), though the Magic escaped with a 91-86 win behind a combined 31 points from reserves J.J. Redick and Michael Pietrus.
Orlando could use more strong efforts from Redick, who's averaged 15.7 points in three games against the Pistons. The Magic are 8-1 when he scores 15 points or more, which he's done in both wins versus Detroit.
"I really think we have enough talent and we're going to make enough shots, but it's all going to come down to us getting stops and being consistent defensively," Redick said of the Magic's approach to the second half.
That defensive consistency is all focused around Dwight Howard, who had 17 points and a game-high three blocks in Sunday's All-Star game.
Orlando is 15-2 when the NBA's leader in blocks (2.7 per game) swats away at least four shots, and he had five in the win in Detroit last month.
The Pistons haven't been healthy for any of their meetings with the Magic this season - Tayshaun Prince and Richard Hamilton missed the first two, and Charlie Villanueva sat out last month's loss - but can make that claim Wednesday.
It wasn't any of those three that made the difference Tuesday against Minnesota, however. Rookie Jonas Jerebko scored 21 points in 21 minutes in a 108-85 victory.
"We knew we could play like this,'' Jerebko said. "It's a lot of fun when we play together and share the ball. We just have to keep it up.''
Will Bynum had 14 of Detroit's season-high 37 assists.
Jerebko has averaged 8.3 points in three games against Orlando, but Villanueva and Rodney Stuckey have fared better. Villanueva averaged 20 points in two November contests with the Magic, while Stuckey has scored at least 18 in all three meetings.