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MARK HEISLER / ON THE NBA

Orlando Magic have become a real threat in the East

The Lakers will play the NBA's hottest team on Friday, but it's not Boston or Cleveland -- it's Orlando.

January 16, 2009|MARK HEISLER | ON THE NBA

And now, the Magic's Mystery Tour.

Lakerdom is gearing up for Monday's game here with Cleveland, the latest in a series of, quote, possible Finals previews, unquote, but don't look now, there's one tonight too.

With less fanfare, or none, the Lakers are about to play the NBA's hottest team, which doesn't happen to have LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce or Ray Allen.

This team isn't part of the old Lakers-Celtics rivalry or the new Celtics-Cavaliers rivalry, or any rivalry outside Florida.

The last time it got past the second round of the playoffs, Shaquille O'Neal played there. It was so long ago, Shaq hadn't even heard of Kobe, although he was taking an increasingly dimmer view of Penny Hardaway.

Aw, you guessed it.

It's the Orlando Magic, which isn't mentioned in the same breath with the Lakers, Celtics and Cavaliers, but is right there with them at 31-8, which is even more impressive when you consider the Magic started 0-2.

This tour has been Magical, all right. After starting the trip with a win in San Antonio, the Magic dropped an NBA-record 23 three-pointers on the Kings in a 139-107 rout.

Even those pesky pundits have noticed. ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy said he was revising his earlier view that the Magic wasn't a serious contender.

Van Gundy is the brother of Orlando Coach Stan Van Gundy, so this is what you'd call a tough audience.

"What most of the people who are coaches or have been coaches in the league say, the record is what counts," said Stan at his team's practice Thursday in Hawthorne.

"That's what you're judged by. We could talk about subjective stuff and matchups and everything else, but 31-8 is 31-8.

"Cut it however you want, it's 31-8. Unlike some teams, we haven't played an inordinate number of home games. We haven't played five more games at home. As a matter of fact, by the end of the trip, we'll have played three more away.

"We're 31-8. Are we that good? Time will tell."

Actually, the Lakers have played six more at home. With their "road" game against the Clippers, they've been in Staples Center for 23 of 38 games.

But do people go around saying the Lakers have had a soft schedule?

N-o-o-o-o.

Dwight Howard, the Magic's 23-year-old prodigy, now blossoming into a superstar, tried telling his Olympics teammates in China how good the Magic would be.

They were nice enough to listen politely, for a second or two.

"They kind of laughed it off a little bit," Howard said. "Which, the way we ended the season last year, you can understand."

Last spring, when the Detroit Pistons dispatched Orlando in five games of their second-round series, the Magic was regarded as a group of fancy gunners.

At that point, the old maxim, live by the jump shot, die by the jump shot, was very much to the point.

The Magic can still launch with the best of them. Ten of them have made a three this season -- and not a single one has a three-point field-goal percentage under 35.6%. Brian Cook, a former Laker, is second on the team at 47.6%, and barely gets off the bench.

Now, however, there's a grown-up inside game, known as Howard, whose repertoire once consisted of tomahawk dunks, two-handed dunks and lobs he dunked, but now has right and even left-handed jump hooks, plus the Amare Stoudemire Special (take one dribble, whiz past the other center so fast he gets dizzy.)

Beyond this, Howard has been introduced to something new: Defense.

Coming off a career-high 1.9 blocks a game when Van Gundy arrived last season, Howard went to 2.1 and now leads the league at 3.2.

Orlando's fancy gunners are also No. 4 in defense (to the Lakers' No. 16) and No. 3 in opposing field-goal accuracy (to the Lakers' No. 9)

This is no coincidence. The hard-nosed Van Gundy came up on Pat Riley's staff in Miami, as his brother had come up on Riley's staff in New York.

(The sons of Bill Van Gundy, who coached prep and junior college ball in California, their mother, Cindy, once noted, "We're living proof that insanity is inherited.")

"Stan Van Gundy is a great coach," said Howard, grinning. "He pushes us to our limit. . . .

"I'm really glad he's around -- even though he gets on my nerves. I hate to hear his voice all the time, but he pushes us to be better. . . . I could score 50 points, but if I don't have two blocks, four blocks, he's going to kill me."

The Magic, coming off a 40-42 season when Van Gundy arrived, went to 52-30 last season and this season looks even better. With its state-of-the-art inside-outside game, the Magic is a matchup nightmare, winning last season's series with Boston, 2-1, and Cleveland, 3-1.

The Magic may even be an equation-changer. Despite the East's renaissance, with the Celtics aging and James' fluid situation in Cleveland, you couldn't point to a single rising young power like the Lakers or the Portland Trail Blazers.

There's one on the horizon now. If tonight's game doesn't turn out to be a Finals preview this season, there are more seasons coming.

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mark.heisler@latimes.com

--

LAKERS / TOUGH STRETCH

Coming off consecutive games in Texas against Houston and San Antonio,

the Lakers come home and face two of the best teams in the Eastern Conference:

TONIGHT AT STAPLES

vs. Orlando (31-8)

7:30, FSW and ESPN

--

MONDAY AT STAPLES

vs. Cleveland (30-7)

7:30 p.m., TNT

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