|The Magic say they need Hedo Turkoglu to pick up his game if they're going to make a run. (US Presswire)|
MIAMI -- The Magic answered their biggest question of the season Thursday when Dwight Howard decided to stay in Orlando. It was a monumental occasion for a franchise clouded in doubt all year about Howard's future.
If this was the offseason we could applaud the Magic, pat Howard on the back and go home and wait to see how this unfolds. But it's not that simple. The Magic now have to refocus and turn their attention back to the court. They have to see if they can win a title this year.
Now, before you snicker, thinking there is no way the Magic can pass the Heat or Bulls in the Eastern Conference or any of the contenders out West, just listen to their argument. It might sway your opinion, and you might give the Magic a chance at a championship.
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Even Heat coach Erik Spoelstra considers the Magic a serious contender now that they kept Howard in the fold.
"Absolutely," Spoelstra said Sunday about Orlando's chances for a championship. "There is no doubt about it. Any time you have an MVP candidate like that and the personnel that fit you're a contender. They're a contender every year that he is there, and they have proven it. They play hard and they present a lot of challenges for you."
The Magic didn't look like much of a contender Sunday against the Heat in a 91-81 loss. Their defense struggled to contain Dwyane Wade (31 points), Chris Bosh (23 points) and LeBron James (14 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists), and Howard had a quiet double-double with 18 points and 11 rebounds. Orlando also got next to nothing from starting forwards Ryan Anderson and Hedo Turkoglu, who combined for seven points and seven rebounds.
Coach Stan Van Gundy complained about the Magic's effort, especially early in the game when the Heat built a 13-point lead before halftime, and the team committed 20 turnovers. The performance didn't sit well with the Magic players either.
"It's time," forward Glen Davis said. "It's time to stop making excuses."
The Magic now have to rebound in a hurry with one of the most difficult back-to-back sets in the NBA against Chicago on Monday. These two games could give Orlando a strong indication of its chances come playoff time. The Magic finished their season series against the Heat 2-2, and they are 1-1 against the Bulls heading into Monday's final matchup.
Howard, content about his decision to stay in Orlando, is now focused on trying to win a championship. He said this team is as good as the Magic squad that reached the NBA finals in 2009 when they lost to the Lakers in five games.
"We have a team that can make a run," Howard said. "I just feel like a lot of guys have to really understand what they can do and what they can bring to the team. We have to do that every night. We don't have to get all the hoopla or whatever. I think teams understand that we have a pretty good team when we play together and play the right way. We just have to do that on a consistent basis."
General Manager Otis Smith also believes in his roster, and he is counting on the players to be accountable and rise to the occasion. With Howard staying, Smith has the centerpiece for a championship team.
Smith said earlier this week that the supporting cast, players like Anderson, Turkoglu, Jason Richardson and Jameer Nelson, need to be consistent for the Magic to succeed.
"I like the team we have right now, and that's what we're concentrating on," Smith said. "Can Turk play a little better? Sure. Can J-Rich play a little better? Sure. Jameer has started to play better."
But do the Magic have enough weapons to beat the Heat or the Bulls in the playoffs? Do they even have enough to get out of the first round? Last year, the Magic lost to the Hawks in the first round in six games. Orlando would be the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference if the playoffs started today, which would mean a rematch with No. 6 seed Atlanta. The Magic are 0-2 against the Hawks this year with one final meeting left in April.
Guard J.J. Redick isn't concerned, and he said in a long playoff series that "Stan can go to his lab and scheme, and I like our chances." Nelson agrees with his backcourt mate.
"We can play with anybody," Nelson said. "I think we can beat anybody."
The Magic have 20 games and just about six weeks left of the regular season before they'll find out how long of a playoff run they can make. It would have been a daunting task without Howard, but his decision to remain in Orlando gives the Magic a chance.
They believe they are serious contenders for a championship. Now all they have to do is prove it once the postseason arrives.