Orlando Magic general manager Pat Williams laughed when he was asked just how ready his team is to possibly making some noise in the Eastern Conference come playoff time.
"We're a very young team, and our two key players are in their infancy," Williams said. "They're so young that they're still signing their autographs with crayons."
They might be young, but the Magic is acting like anything but kids on the basketball court. With Sunday's win over the Charlotte Hornets, the Magic extended its franchise-record win streak to seven games and has crept within two games (one in the loss column) of the fading New York Knicks.
Suddenly a team that began the season with the thoughts of being several years away from competing for a title is thinking that this might be the season to make an impact. The Magic, which a year ago finished 41-41 and did not qualify for the playoffs after losing a tie-breaker to the Indiana Pacers, now has the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference (33-20).
"People say that we're two years away," rookie guard Anfernee Hardaway said. "But we could be going for a championship this year."
And the main reason has been Hardaway, who replaced Scott Skiles as the starting point guard on Feb. 6 against the Knicks. Orlando lost that game to fall 7 1/2 games behind New York, but has won seven in a row since then, including impressive victories against the Seattle SuperSonics and Atlanta Hawks -- both division leaders. Hardaway is averaging 15.5 points, 6.2 assists and 5.1 rebounds.
Shaquille O'Neal has continued to post big numbers, averaging 28.7 points and 12.5 rebounds. But perhaps the biggest boost has come from Dennis Scott, who, after starting the season with a limited role, is now starting and averaging 17.6 points in his past six games.
Maybe Scott's increased playing time was a move to improve his trade value, because the 6-foot-8 guard/forward was mentioned in numerous deals before last week's trading deadline. Whatever the reason, Scott has made an impact with his outside shooting.
"His contribution has been great," Williams said. "He's gotten the opportunity, and he makes a huge difference. He adds a dimension that makes it very, very difficult to defend us. Teams have to be aware of him."
And the Knicks, who have lost four straight and seven of their past 10, had better be aware of the charging Magic.
"Our players believe we can beat anybody, and if you look at the East it's up for grabs," Williams said. "Come playoff time it's a different level, different pressure. We have not been through that, and it seems like all the top teams, like Detroit and Chicago, have had tough times before succeeding. We'll see."
A soft touch
Remember growing up during hot summers, and waiting for the Mr. Softee ice cream truck to make the rounds? Remember the distinct music from the truck that you could hear from blocks away?
For a team playing host to the Knicks and needing appropriate music to play, maybe the Mr. Softee theme should be piped in any time Charles Smith touches the ball.
Smith, who earned his soft tag in last year's Eastern Conference finals when he misfired from point-blank range in the final seconds against the Chicago Bulls, has put on quite an astonishing performance in recent games.
On Sunday, the 6-foot-10, 244-pound Smith played 34 minutes and had no rebounds. In his past three games, Smith has three rebounds in 98 minutes.
When you are 6-10, rebounds are suppose to land in your lap. A player that big should accidentally grab at least six or seven a game.
"They would've hung me from the rafters," Cleveland Cavaliers scout Truck Robinson told the New York Daily News about Smith, "if I put up numbers like that."
New York coach Pat Riley apparently has reached the end of his tolerance level with the recent play of the Knicks, who have failed to score 80 points in two of their past three games.
With Smith missing in action on the boards, and Patrick Ewing missing from the field (nine of 23 on Sunday), the Knicks find themselves in trouble.
"I've always had a history of staying with guys going up and going down," Riley said.
"But somewhere in the best interest of the team, we're going to probably have to do something, to get a different mix. I don't think we'll have any conflict. The truth is out there on the court, and its not very good right now."
Of New York's 36 wins, only 14 have come against teams with records above .500.