Back in Decmeber, Orlando was struggling from a vicious stomach virus that knocked the team off its rhythm and something just seemed off. The Magic were keeping pace record-wise, going 15-4 until that fateful virus hit, but they did not have that something that would make anyone believe a title was there. Sure, Miami had put a scare into everyone, but after a Thanksgiving weekend victory at home over Miami things should have calmed down on that front.
The virus led to a four-game losing streak and questions about the team that had been quiet grew louder. Otis Smith revealed the upcoming West Coast road trip would reveal to him the character of the team and let him know what might need to be done.
The Magic went 1-3, getting manhandled in Portland where Dwight questioned his team's desire and effort. Then came a loss to Utah where Deron Williams and the Jazz tore up Orlando. Then, after defeating the Clippers, Carmelo Anthony went wild on a helpless Magic defense.
Smith had seen enough. Three days later, Vince Carter, Rashard Lewis, Marcin Gortat and Mickael Pietrus were gone. The team had been completely, and audaciously, been remade midseason. And the whole story had changed.
Three months later, we are still trying to figure out who this team is and, perhaps, slowly accepting some lower expectations for it. Like the first West Coast trip, the second West Coast trip told us a lot about the identity of the Magic. And with less time before the Playoffs, there is little chance (and actually no chance) for the kind of drastic step Smith took back in December.
The recently completed West Coast road trip did reveal more about this team. The team still does not have a solid identity as it continues to fall into bad habits. The defense lapses at times and the focus and intensity not always there. The stand-and-watch Dwight or completely ignore him on offense habit continues to set in. Either Orlando is going into Howard too much and not doing enough offensively or not going to him enough and hoisting up somewhat contested 3-pointers.
This Magic team, despite putting up still solid defensive numbers, is still struggling to find their balance. The West Coast trip did not do much to help that. Instead, in games against Golden State and Los Angeles, Orlando re-affirmed its over-reliance on 3-point shooting -- Howard had a season-low 15.6 percent usage rate in that loss to the Warriors.
Turnovers were a consistent and constant problem throughout the five-game road trip. The Magic had turnover rates hovering around 20 percent in three of the five games. Stan Van Gundy is lamenting it and it is not necessarily something he can fix. Turnovers are the kinds of things players have to correct on their own.
But one thing the Magic did do during the five-game road trip is something the 2009 Magic were very good at doing. Orlando has started to gut out the so-called ugly wins. To me, this is the most positive sign and perhaps the thing the team prior to the trade was unable to do.
Look at the Sacramento, Milwaukee and Friday night's homecoming against Denver. In each of those games Orlando played far from perfect. Yet, in each game, the Magic were able to keep themselves in it, control the tempo and convert late in the game to win. If the Magic were truly a ".500 team" as their record since the trades (28-19) sometimes suggests, they would not be winning slog-it-out games like Milwaukee or Denver or be able to have the composure to come back and dominate the fourth quarter like against Sacramento.
These are the type of character wins Stan Van Gundy said he liked after Jameer Nelson's game-winner against the Nuggets. He likes seeing his team in the regular season able to play poorly and still find a way to win. He called it earlier in the season "lessons without losing."
Now, the Magic surely canot get away with this type of playing in the Playoffs. Van Gundy knows that. Dwight Howard knows that. Everyone on the team knows it. There is plenty of concern that the team will not be able to flip the switch and find that extra gear.
Still it is a positive sign. And the way Orlando has closed the road trip and won the last two games are signs of improvement and things might be OK. But just like after the first road trip, it is still difficult to say anything definitively. And this late in the season, that might be the biggest concern of all.