Magic need to cure defensive woes vs. Heat
By KYLE HIGHTOWER
ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) -- It was a brief, flash of a moment, the kind that probably won't show up on an Orlando Magic highlight reel this season.
With just under five minutes left in the third quarter and Orlando cruising against the Cleveland Cavaliers earlier this week, Magic point guard Jameer Nelson found a way to make coach Stan Van Gundy stand and applaud: He made a play on the defensive end of the court.
The steal at midcourt that led to a layup for teammate Jason Richardson may be a common sequence over the course of an NBA game. But for a Magic team that has struggled to find consistency lately -- particularly on the defensive end -- Van Gundy is savoring any positive steps he can find these days.
Orlando is just 6-6 since winning a franchise-tying nine consecutive games. Now the Magic will get one of their biggest defensive tests since making a pair of roster-busting December trades when the Southeast Division-leading Miami Heat visit on Thursday. The rivals have split their two previous meetings, with both winning at home.
"I don't think we've seen the best of us," Van Gundy said. "We more than anything need some real continuity. A lot was made that they had these new guys and their early season struggles, and that was coming through a training camp. We haven't had our guys through a training camp and now we have guys in and out. So we need time. This is hopefully not the group we will play them with later."
While the matchup would otherwise be a measuring stick game, the Magic will limp into it. Van Gundy said Brandon Bass is out Thursday and could miss the next five games with a sprained left ankle. Forward Malik Allen still hasn't played since spraining his left ankle Dec. 20 and J.J. Redick took it light in practice Wednesday with a sore left shoulder. Even reserve forward Earl Clark was sent home with a high fever.
Van Gundy said they are undecided about how they plan to handle his starting lineup or rotations, but Nelson said the Magic won't use their thinness as an excuse.
"We'll be fine," Nelson said. "We're down a couple of guys. We're a little short-handed. It will be tough on the front line. But we're a veteran team and guys can step. Guys may have to go out of their normal role."
Van Gundy sounded exasperated with his team's defensive progress after its 100-97 loss at Memphis Monday, saying his team was "not ready to contend" for a championship at this point.
The Magic are currently ranked seventh in the NBA in opponents' points per game (94.65) and tied for fifth for opponents' field goal percentage (44.3). They are just 3-15 when giving up 96 or more points this season. Miami is averaging 101.6 points.
In 2008-09 when the Magic made a run to the NBA Finals and were praised for their defense, they held foes to 94.4 points per game and to 43.4 percent from the field. Dwight Howard also comfortably led the league in rebounding and blocked shots, but this season he currently trails Minnesota's Kevin Love in those categories with the Magic leaning on him more than ever on the defensive end.
Van Gundy wasn't as harsh Wednesday, saying that the lack of practice time (the Magic have played their last 12 games in just 20 games) may be a partial culprit in his team's recent sluggishness. It doesn't change the fact that they have to find a way to stop a Heat squad at full-strength.
Miami is playing some of its best basketball of the season with 6-foot-8 forward Mike Miller contributing his best performances since returning from a preseason thumb injury.
He's also recently gotten increased minutes alongside Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh, creating potential matchup problems for an undersized Magic team that will be even smaller than it has been since the trades. James leads with team, averaging 26 points per game, with Wade and Bosh contributing 25 and 19, respectively.
"They have a proven defensive system and we respect that," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "Our game is still going to be our game. I don't see a big-time difference defensively from who they were at the beginning of the year to where they are now. We will have to continue to execute and trust."
Orlando's Gilbert Arenas was the key part of the trades, but has struggled to find his place in a Magic uniform. When asked about James' comments this week about the high importance of Thursday's game, he said he embraces that spirit.
"Anytime you're going against a top team, you're excited about it," Arenas said. "And we are the underdogs right now. I've had a battle with D-Wade going. But they always got the best of us. Now that I'm on a better team, it should make it a better fight."
AP Sports Writer Tim Reynolds contributed to this report from Miami.
Received 02/02/11 04:57 pm ET