Magic are no match for Heat, now or later
ORLANDO — Despite their failed comeback, the new-look Orlando Magic delivered a message to Miami Heat fans Thursday night: Feel free to fear Boston and Chicago. But don't lose a moment's rest over us.
On a night when LeBron James turned his animosity toward the Magic into 51 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists, the Heat stepped onto Orlando's home court and offered a clearer picture of how their two Dec. 9 trades impacted the balance of power in the Eastern Conference.
Bank on this much: The re-tooled Magic pose no serious threat to Miami in a seven-game series. They're just as soft, less efficient defensively and unable to contain LeBron James.
The Heat may have fewer answers for Dwight Howard, who scored 17 points and had 16 rebounds, than they'd like. But the Magic now have even fewer answers for the LeBron-Dwyane Wade duo, to say nothing of Chris Bosh.
Heat fans, don't worry about the too-little, too-late flurry of three-pointers (six) the Magic hit in the last four minutes.
Focus instead on the fact LeBron James plays his finest and most ferocious when he's truly, deeply angry. And the fact he can't stand the team he helped beat Thursday.
Orlando mocked him in the summertime. Howard took to mocking his chalk throw pregame.
The King is not amused.
"Is it flattering?" LeBron asked, grimacing. "No. It's not flattering."
Indeed, LeBron's temper was still flaring after the Heat escaped with a 104-100 victory after being up as much as 23. It wasn't the letdown that had him steaming. It was his feeling for the Orlando Magic.
"Just playing this team got me going," he said. "We understand that this wasn't any regular game. There's a lot of things said about us in the offseason that came from this organization. So we just wanted to come here and play to our abilities and make a statement."
They did. They stated clearly that Orlando will not beat Miami in a seven-game series.
Mark it down.
Parse the stats however one must. Focus on Orlando's comeback. Or the argument LeBron can't always score 51. Or the fact the Magic missed a lot of free throws.
Try and believe the lie that the Magic's defense didn't falter too much when they swapped out Rashard Lewis, Vince Carter, Martin Gortat and Mickael Pietrus for Gilbert Arenas, Jason Richardson, Hedo Turkoglu and Earl Clark.
None of it'll work, because the key to what happens going forward can't be decoded with analytics, wishful thinking or rosy predictions of what almost happened Thursday night.
This is the key: LeBron can't stand this team. Which means the other factors going the Heat's way will play second fiddle to just how great The Chosen One is when he turns himself willingly into The Angry One.
Into The Villain.
There's also the reality Orlando doesn't have the defensive tools to tackle the Big Three and their component parts. Pietrus was their defensive stopper, or at least the only one with a prayer of containing LeBron. With Pietrus shipped to Phoenix, LeBron was free to torch Turkoglu, then Richardson, then whoever the Magic tried to attach to him.
The Heat aren't going to forget this game come playoff time.
"We can learn from those last six minutes but we can also learn from those first 42 minutes," LeBron said.
Throw in Mike Miller's emergence as a source of heart and hustle (he had 11 rebounds Thursday and served as an energy catalyst over his 20 minutes) to say nothing of a catch-and-shoot threat and the Heat fall neatly and safely ahead of Orlando in the conference's pecking order.
Arenas is a bust. Gortat's departure leaves Howard with less time for rest or defensive relief and more time to be worn down by teams like the Heat that can throw four centers his way.
But while Orlando's first 42 minutes of play highlighted its shortcomings relative to the Heat, the last six minutes reinforce that Miami does not have an easy road to the NBA Finals.
The Heat aren't closers yet. They get too pleased with pummeling teams they loathe and thus sometimes let them back in, as was the case Thursday night. That mental weakness will translate into not pouring enough of themselves into games -- even huge games -- against teams they don't hate.
In this year's Eastern Conference, nothing but Boston's ferocity or Chicago's singular lust for winning will do.
"It's a great competition (in the conference)," LeBron said before the game. "I don't know if there's one clear-cut team that's better than another. I think Boston is on top for a reason, they've proven it and they're playing some great basketball. But you look at one through four -- us, or Chicago, Atlanta and Boston.
"You can't take Orlando out of it even though they're not in the top four teams," he added.
We can. Orlando's out.
But LeBron is right about Boston and Chicago. Atlanta doesn't have the horses to run with Miami, let alone the pedigree to match them over several games.
But Boston is for real. If the Celtics stay healthy, and the Heat do not jump ahead the one or two levels head coach Erik Spoelstra believes they can, Miami will not win that series.
And then there's Chicago.
The Bulls might be the most dangerous team no one really fears. But the league should. Particularly the Heat.
When Joakim Noah returns, the Bulls will have a combination that still causes Miami heartburn: an elite point guard in Derrick Rose (who may already be one of the league's 10 best players) and big men in Noah and Carlos Boozer with enough hustle and verve to further expose Miami's frontcourt.
There's also the fact the Bulls have been smart enough not to wag their finger in the Heat's faces, insult their skill or toughness or otherwise provoke the Big Three.
So far, Chicago is going about approaching the Heat the right way. With silence that's interpreted as respect and players who quietly want to destroy them. Rose's ambition and need to win matches LeBron's when LeBron is angry.
Only Rose doesn't need to be piqued to be at his most powerful.
Right now, the pecking order in the Eastern Conference looks like this:
1. Boston. If healthy, they can beat all comers.
2. Chicago. It's close, but give them the edge. They might not be as sure-a-thing against Orlando, but they can give Miami what the Magic can't: A real fight.
4. Orlando. Their December trade improved them and they shouldn't have any problems with teams like New York and Atlanta. Problem is, the trade didn't improve them enough to have a realistic chance against the teams ahead of them on this list.
5. Everyone else.
Just ask Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy.
"Well, right now I don't totally agree with 'little separation' between teams," he said. "Right now, Boston and Miami have separated themselves and Chicago has a pretty significant advantage on us."
The Heat won't lose to Orlando come April and beyond. Chicago and Boston? That's another matter.
It'll be interesting to see whether Spoelstra's right about his team reaching a few more levels.
Tap into LeBron's rage and passion the way Orlando was foolish to do Thursday night, and that might just happen.
Then all bets are off.
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