INDIANAPOLIS — The Orlando Magic know that just about no one expects them to win their first-round playoff series against the Indiana Pacers.
Prognosticators say the Magic have no chance without injured All-Star Dwight Howard. The Pacers supposedly have too much size, too much depth, too much balance. A statistician named Paul Bessire recently ran a sophisticated computer simulation and determined that the Magic have less than a 13 percent chance of winning the series, which will begin at 7 Saturday night.
"Obviously, a lot of people are kind of talking us down and telling us what we can't do," Magic power forward Ryan Anderson said. "And I think that that's really fueling us. It is nice to start with a clean slate. I just think that we play really well with this group."
You never would have guessed that the Magic consider themselves underdogs if you had stood outside Bankers Life Fieldhouse's practice court Friday afternoon.
Players and coaches cheered and clapped when athletic trainer Keon Weise presented J.J. Redickwith a plaque for being the team's most durable player during the regular season. What once was a group that was distracted by Howard's trade request and Howard's feud with coach Stan Van Gundy has become more united in recent weeks.
"I like being the underdog," said center Glen Davis. "We have something to prove. We have nothing to lose."
Davis' situation is emblematic of the Magic's underdog status.
He has a sprained right ankle. But even if he were healthy, he would face a significant height disadvantage. He has replaced Howard at center, and even though Davis is only 6-9, he will guard the Pacers' 7-foot-2 All-Star center, Roy Hibbert.
But the third-seeded Pacers have more size than the sixth-seeded Magic almost across the board.
"We're not going to overemphasize Roy Hibbert," Indiana coach Frank Vogel said. "We have matchups at a lot of different positions, mismatches that we feel like we can exploit. Roy is just one of those."
Orlando has struggled terribly to defend without Howard, the reigning three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year. Howard served as a safety net of sorts on defense; if teams penetrated into the lane, Howard was there to deter opponents from driving to the hoop because of his strength and his explosive shot-blocking ability.
The Magic allowed opponents to shoot over 50.0 percent in eight of their first 11 games without Howard on the court.
Before the season began, it would have seemed inconceivable that Orlando would enter a playoff series depending heavily on 24-year-old Earl Clark and 21-year-old Daniel Orton.
Clark has played in only four playoff games in his brief pro career, while Orton has never played in a postseason. But they both are 6-10.
"Look, for us to win, particularly in the playoffs, we're gonna need a lot of people to play well," Van Gundy said.
"And that's going to include guys like Daniel and Earl. They're gonna have to play well, and they can't be out there just fouling and playing undisciplined. They've got a tremendous, tremendous opportunity here on a big stage in the playoffs to prove that they're solid NBA players that can help teams win, and they've got to take advantage of that."
Yet this is the Magic's situation: They are a dramatically different team. Defensively, they have no margin for error. Offensively, they no longer have a post-up game, and now they are even more heavily dependent on pick-and-rolls to free point guard Jameer Nelson to penetrate and dish to 3-point shooters.
Vogel said a team that shoots — and hits — as many 3s as the Magic always will be dangerous.
And in this series, Orlando must sink its long-distance shots.
"We understand that we're still a good team, and people are going to put us as underdogs," Nelson said. "But one thing we know is if we stick together, with the way we've been playing and the intensity we've been playing with, I think good things can happen for us."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun