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No Magic trick, hard work has put Orlando on top

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It was during a national teleconference with Charles Barkley that the Phoenix Suns forward was asked to name the best players in the NBA today.

Orlando Magic center Shaquille O'Neal was the top choice. Houston Rockets center Hakeem Olajuwon was next. Then came Orlando Magic guard Anfernee Hardaway.

That two of Barkley's top three picks belong to the Magic shows the amount of respect that Orlando has earned in its impressive start this season. The Magic, whose 20-5 record is the best in the NBA, makes its second appearance of the season at USAir Arena tonight against the Washington Bullets.

The Magic is looking to avenge its opening-night loss to the Bullets. Until the shoulder injury to Chris Webber last week, the game had the makings of an intriguing matchup involving Hardaway and Webber, who were traded in the 1993 draft-day deal between the Magic and Golden State Warriors.

Instead, the Bullets, who ended their eight-game losing streak with a victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday, will be without their top scorer (18.4 points a game).

Hardaway, Orlando's second-leading scorer, said he was flattered by Barkley's remark.

"That's big-time," he said last week. "The first thing I wanted to do when I came into the league was earn the respect of the veteran players. A lot of guys get drafted high and don't amount to anything. I just want to be noticed by my hard work."

People are noticing the hard work of Hardaway, who, in his second season, is raising his game. In his first season as starting point guard for the Magic (he replaced Scott Skiles, now a Bullet, in that role midway through last season), Hardaway is averaging 21.3 points, 6.5 assists and 4.2 rebounds.

Hardaway's improved play gives the Magic perhaps the best 1-2 punch in the league. O'Neal has improved greatly from a year ago, when he was second in the league in scoring (29.3) and rebounding (13.2) and first in field-goal percentage (.599). With moves around the basket that give him a little more offensive range, O'Neal is leading the league in scoring (29.9) and is second in field-goal percentage (.613) behind Chris Gatling of Golden State (.705).

"He's improved tremendously from last year," Atlanta Hawks coach Lenny Wilkens said recently of O'Neal. "He's a guy who seemingly has everything, and it's clear that he's been working hard."

If there's a flaw with the Magic, it's free-throw shooting. In a game two weeks ago against the New Jersey Nets, the Magic made six of 23 free throws, the lowest free-throw percentage (.261) in team history and the fourth-lowest ever in an NBA game. Orlando's free-throw percentage is .656.

O'Neal's percentage is .544, Horace Grant's .672, Nick Anderson's .676 and Brian Shaw's .636. That's four players in the team's eight-man rotation shooting less than 70 percent from the line.

"To be honest, I don't want to talk about it," Magic coach Brian Hill said.

"The players are going to pick up the paper and see us dwelling on negatives."

Though poor free-throw shooting has yet to hurt the Magic much, come playoff time, when tight games can come down to opportunities from the line, Orlando may not be able to overcome the problem.

"We definitely need to address the free-throw problem before it becomes a factor in winning or losing important games," Hill said.

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