Pump Up Music: PS 22 Chorus -- "Run This Town"
The Big Picture: The Orlando Magic are 47-20 and will probably wrap up the Southeast Division ahead of the Atlanta Hawks. But you know that. Dwight Howard is a ridiculously dominant force in the paint, but still has room to get better, and still could stand to use up more of his team's possessions. But you know that. What you might not know is that, while the Magic do miss Hedo Turkoglu and have become a relatively conventional team without him, they've beefed up their depth this season with two key free agent signings and encouraging improvement from a guy already on the roster.
Matt Barnes is one of my favorite players in the NBA precisely because he's underappreciated and underestimated everywhere he goes. It's probably because his skills aren't readily apparent. Most of his value is tied up in defense, but he can hit the corner three and he has plenty of hops, and if you want to talk about character, he may not be the most polite person on the floor (how many competitive pro athletes are, anyway?), but every night he brings what I think is relentless professionalism. Stephen Jackson and Mickael Pietrus are like this, too. He's there to do business, and that business is kicking your ass. Barnes splits time with Pietrus as designated stopper, and it kills me that the last three teams to employ him basically did so on a flier. If I could pay him $2 mil per year, I'd be ecstatic. He's right up there with Jared Dudley among the ideal fourth and fifth men.
Orlando also brought Jason Williams out of retirement to be the backup point guard. I don't have much on him, except to point out that he's a huge upgrade over Rafer Alston, he was childhood buddies with Randy Moss, and it's kind of amazing that he was once traded away for Mike Bibby because he wasn't "pure point guard" enough and now he's a steady veteran presence. Few players have transitioned from flashy young gun to stoic supporting player as well as Williams has.
Finally, J.J. Redick has received a chance to produce and has responded. He's still primarily a perimeter player, but the biggest knock on him coming out of Duke was that he couldn't create his own shot, and now he's nowhere near the worst wing player in the league at that, and might be out of the bottom quartile among wings. This isn't to say he should be starting somewhere, but he's overcome seriously long odds -- essentially getting benched his second year in the league, playing fewer minutes than Gerald Henderson has -- to become a contributing role player on a championship-caliber club.
Key to Victory: Theo Ratliff and Tyson Chandler are each a formidable defensive presence in the paint. If they can frustrate Howard and make his team give up on working him the ball, they'll have done their jobs, because that will make defending all the Magic's shooters that much easier. It's a tall task, but we'll see if they can do it on an island.
Secondly, Gerald Wallace will be out. Larry Brown didn't get his new toy, Larry Hughes, to sit on the bench and be a practice-time vet. We'll probably see him start at the two, with Stephen Jackson at the three, provided he's available, and Stephen Graham would start if Hughes is not. As noted in the comments, Hughes probably won't be available at all this week, though, so we're probably going to see too much Stephen Graham and a good dose of Tyrus Thomas miscast as a small forward (although, there's a possibility his skills mesh just so with Diaw's to make something awesome). Of course, I'd rather see Henderson get the starts, but LB obviously doesn't believe in such foolishness as giving a rookie significant playing time.
Detail That May Interest .08% of You: Stan Van Gundy is not, in fact, Ron Jeremy.