At the start of the season, my pick to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals was the Indiana Pacers. Although I'm still going with my original choice, the more I see Orlando play, the more difficult it is to pick against the Magic.
Orlando destroyed the pitiful Golden State Warriors, 132-98, on Sunday to extend its winning streak to four games. The Magic had lost three straight before the streak, and many asked if the team finally was showing some of its flaws. But the Magic started the streak with a win over the Phoenix Suns. Then in three straight nationally televised games, it beat the Charlotte Hornets, brushed aside the return of Michael Jordan to Chicago with a road win Friday against the Bulls and romped over the Warriors on Sunday.
"This team has always been resilient and has always been able to bounce back from adversity," Magic coach Brian Hill said. "I think the last four games should prove that we are a quality team."
There's no doubting that. Shaquille O'Neal has dominated the league all season and surely will win the league's MVP award. Point guard Anfernee Hardaway has developed into one of those rare players you would want to pay to see. In Friday's game at Chicago, Hardaway was the only player on the floor who resembled the old Jordan.
What's most impressive about Orlando is the poise the team has demonstrated. Friday was a perfect time for the Magic to become unwound, with the atmosphere surrounding Jordan's return. But the Magic calmly came from behind to win in a game that had to make even Jordan a believer.
The question is whether the Magic can dominate in the playoffs, after getting swept in the first round by the Pacers last season. That's the added weight the team will take into the playoffs, where the style of play is completely different and good coaching comes into play.
The Magic has shown, during the regular season, that it can compete with anyone. We'll soon see if it can handle the playoff pressure.
Disagreeing with Jordan
It seems that a couple of the league's younger players didn't take kindly to the criticism by Jordan, who, on his return, said the youngsters "shouldn't take the game for granted and treat it like dirt."
One of the outspoken players is Charlotte Hornets forward Larry Johnson, one of the NBA players playing supporting roles to Jordan in a current TV commercial.
"Michael Jordan's not perfect," Johnson said. "Just because Michael Jordan thinks people ought to be a certain way or act a certain way doesn't mean that everybody else is going to do it.
"I don't know about the other young guns, but Larry Johnson's going to be Larry Johnson, no matter what anybody says. My responsibility is to my teammates, to my coaches, to the Charlotte Hornets' fans, to my family and to myself."
Apparently, Johnson was upset when NBC opted to show Jordan's debut against the Pacers last week to most of the country, limiting the Utah-Charlotte game, which was supposed to go out to half the country, to those two markets.
This could make an interesting story line next month, because there's a chance the Bulls and Hornets could meet in the first round of the playoffs.
Not a popular choice
Down in Dallas, where Buckner was fired after one year as coach, the players couldn't control themselves over the news.
"I guess once you play in Boston, you can get any job," said Jamal Mashburn, who had a series of run-ins with Buckner. "I just hope he'll be a better general manager than coach. I know one thing: If I ever get traded, it won't be to Minnesota."
Even the Mavericks' Terry Davis offered his two cents (which is more than he gets to offer on the court).
"What's the NBA coming to?" Davis said. "They [Timberwolves] don't have any clue what he did here last year."