It happens every December (typically) for the Magic. The schedule makers inevitably put the Magic on the road for a two-week stretch that sends them out to the West Coast. It takes Orlando to cities like Portland, Salt Lake City, Phoenix and Los Angeles. It reveals who the Magic are going to be that year and shapes a good chunk of the season.
You don't want to put too much emphasis on four games in an 82-game (or 66-game) season. But the early trip out West was always a measuring stick for the Magic. It is the first time the team has the pressure of life on the road and has to really come together when things get tough and the team gets tired from long nights on the road and early flights in strange cities.
The Magic are on their first of two West Coast road trips of this truncated season. The three-game trip to Sacramento, Portland and Oakland will only span five days (the Magic return home before playing the Knicks on Monday at Madison Square Garden). But the trip has already revealed some of the character from this Magic team.
Orlando opened the road trip up with a difficult challenge against Sacramento. With Dwight Howard in foul trouble for the entire game, the team needed a big performance from the supporting cast to keep the pace. Even with a defensive effort that could not keep Tyreke Evans, or much of anyone, out of the paint, the Magic found a way to gut out a win.
This is what Orlando has learned on these West Coast road trips in the past. The team has learned how to win games in tough environments even when they are not on their best nights. This is where the true character of a team is revealed.
We saw it very briefly again Wednesday night in Portland. The Magic used a rare two-day break in Portland to sharpen up and practice hard. They came out of the gate fast Wednesday and full of energy. The precision on the team's passing and defense were striking because, simply, the team had not played with this much energy all year to date. And energy has been something Stan Van Gundy has stressed throughout the entire season thus far.
Going out on the road to Portland and putting on a dominant three-quarter performance and hanging on after a strong rally from the Trail Blazers to end the game. Again, it was not a perfect 48-minute effort from Orlando. The Magic were playing far from perfect in the fourth quarter. They turned the ball over far too many times and their weakness in the pick and roll became painfully apparent.
But when things looked to be at their worst, the Magic dug down deep and did not let momentum overwhelm them. Hedo Turkoglu took control of the game to give the Magic a margin that was comfortable enough to survive the insanity at the end with Nicolas Batum guarding Jameer Nelson.
Bouncing back tonight against Golden State will be another difficult part of the challenge.
But look at the December road trip from the Stan Van Gundy era and you can see how critical these trips have been to developing the team and bringing the team together.
In 2008, the Magic were 12-3 before heading out West. This was a surprise team and everyone wanted to know if they were serious about contending in the East. A West Coast trip to Portland, Seattle, Phoenix, Los Angeles (to face the Lakers) and Golden State. The Blazers, Lakers and Suns were all Playoff caliber teams. The Magic went 2-1 against them and 3-1 on the road trip.
When Orlando returned home 16-4 (even after a three-game losing streak following the road trip), you knew something was brewing with this team.
The same thing happened in 2009. The Magic went out West in December 15-5 and finished a trip to Los Angeles (Clippers, this time), Portland, Phoenix, Utah and Golden State with another 4-1 mark. The loss again came in Phoenix. And again, the Magic knew they would be in it for the long haul and seriously contend for the East's title at that point.
Flash forrward to 2011. Orlando was reeling a bit at 15-6. The illness that worked its way through the roster was still present, if not in actuality then certainly in fatigue and energy level. Orlando hit the road for a four-game trip. They came back 1-3 with losses to Portland, Utah and Denver and a win over the Clippers. The loss in Portland was especially telling as Dwight Howard openly questioned the effort his team gave.
Orlando came home. And three days later, Otis Smith made a dramatic change to the roster's makeup. The timing of the trade suggests something went horribly wrong out West that required dramatic change. The failure out West confirmed though that something was wrong.
So what will we learn when the Magic return home after Thursday's game against Golden State?
That is hard to tell. This is only a three-game jaunt out West. But what we saw after some practice time was a team that can play very efficiently and dangerously. The defense still needs improvement and Orlando struggles to pull away from teams.
One thing we have seen is players get into more defined roles. The time away from Amway Center has helped Stan Van Gundy trust his players a bit more and for the players to trust what they are doing a bit more. Jameer Nelson is attacking the basket more. Hedo Turkoglu drives to the hoop and has found a nice rhythm. Jason Richardson is getting free on curls and finding a way to score. Glen Davis has rediscovered his grittyness.
Is this a championship team? This road trip was not going to prove that. The competition is not stiff enough and the length out West not long enough. But this has become a team. Maybe a better team than we thought (although not championship level quite yet). Maybe exactly who we thought.
Without going out West and being forced to be a team for almost a week away from the comforts of home, we might still have the uncertainty that has surrounded this team since last May.