Magic-Thunder Preview

The Orlando Magic taking backward steps come playoff time – and
maybe the front office’s inability to help change that – made
Dwight Howard restless and ready to move on.

Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder don’t believe they
are anywhere close to peaking following a deep postseason run.

It seemed for a while this might not be the case, but Howard is
starting the season with the Magic – though he could be gone by the
end – as they visit Durant and the Thunder on Sunday.

When the lockout ended earlier this month, it seemed inevitable
Howard would be leaving Orlando. He had publicly requested a trade,
but the Magic were unable to complete a deal to New Jersey for the
26-year-old center and three-time NBA Defensive Player of the
Year.

Although a trade could be worked out in the future, Orlando says
it hopes to keep Howard, who is entering the final year of his
contract, and he has said he’d be willing to stay – if improvements
to the roster are made.

Orlando has made the playoffs in five straight seasons, but
after reaching the NBA finals in 2009, it fell in the conference
finals the following year and was ousted in the first round by
Atlanta following a 52-30 regular season in 2010-11.

“You only get one time around the track. There’s no reset
button. You don’t want to miss out on any opportunity to win,” said
Howard, who averaged a career-best 22.9 points last season and was
second in the league with 14.1 rebounds per game.

“You gotta do what it takes to win.”

Unlike Howard, Durant is happy with the pieces around him.
Oklahoma City reached the Western Conference finals after going
55-27 and winning a Northwest Division title. The Thunder would
lose in five games to eventual champion Dallas.

Despite falling short, it left the young team wanting more and
with the additional experience, Oklahoma City thinks this could be
the year to take the next step.

“It’s not something that we talk about. I think that true
champions don’t talk about it,” said Scott Brooks, heading into his
third full season as coach. “They just go about their work, about
their business that this is another day that we have to work
together.”

While the packed NBA schedule could pose problems for the
league’s older teams, that likely won’t be a problem for a youthful
Thunder squad led by Durant, the NBA’s two-time defending scoring
champion.

Durant averaged 27.7 points last season and has a good
supporting cast including Russell Westbrook (21.9 points, 8.2
assists) and James Harden (12.2 ppg).

While Westbrook is coming off his best scoring season, his
turnovers were up to 3.9 a game and rumors of discord between him
and Durant persist.

If the two can co-exist and if the team gets bigger
contributions from Kendrick Perkins, who lost 30 pounds in the
offseason after struggling with knee problems following his trade
from Boston, the Thunder believe they can win the West.

However, with the element of surprise gone, Perkins, a playoff
veteran from his time with the Celtics, knows the Thunder will have
to work even harder.

“By us making it to the Western Conference finals last year,
that puts a target on your back,” Perkins said. “Going into the
regular season, you’ve got to understand that every game is going
to be a playoff-atmosphere type of game whether you’re at home or
on the road.”

Like Perkins, Hedo Turkoglu is hoping to have a better season
and he could play a major role in determining whether Orlando can
compete in the loaded East. The 32-year-old swingman is coming off
a down season, averaging 11.4 points, 5.1 assists and 4.6 rebounds
in 56 games for the Magic after a trade from Phoenix.

“It’s a new year for me,” Turkoglu said. “I came in here last
year trying to do things in middle of the year. Now I’m starting
off the season and just trying to be focused and do the things I’m
really good at and trying to be what I was a couple of years
ago.”

To provide help inside for Howard, the Magic picked up 6-foot-9
Glen Davis in a trade with Boston for Brandon Bass. He averaged
career bests of 11.7 points and 5.4 rebounds.

While Orlando has won nine of 11 against Oklahoma City, the
teams split two meetings last season and the Thunder have won the
last two at home, including 125-124 last season.

Durant had 36 points in that win while Westbrook added 32 and
recorded a triple-double. Howard averaged 39.5 points and 16.5
boards in the season series.