-- Coach Stan Van Gundy didn't see this game Thursday night against the Cavaliers as anything more than just one of 82 games, putting no greater value into it
than the other games on his NBA schedule.
Gundy might have been playing coy, downplaying the matchup between his Magic
and the Cavaliers for, well ... for no particular reason. Call what he did a ploy
-- a head-fake, if you will. Van Gundy wouldn't be the first coach to play such mind games with outsiders.
game did mean more, oh, than traveling to Auburn Hills and taking the court
against the sorry, no-accout Pistons. But a coach can only beat the team on the floor, and for Van Gundy, that opponent this night wasn't the Pistons; it was the
Van Gundy had much more at stake in this game than he let on. Keep in mind that
he had Technicolor images of the first meeting this season between the two
best teams in the Eastern Conference fresh in his mind.
How could he shake it?
For that game was a reversal of fortunes in terms of what the Magic was able to do against the Cavaliers the last time the two teams met. He would prefer that what the Magic did in its first meeting had been similar to what it did in the NBA Eastern Conference Finals.
That was the pre-Shaq Cavs his team played. In that playoff series, his Magic -- specifically, center Dwight Howard -- dominated play inside. Howard pounded the boards and pushed Ben Wallace and Zydrunas Ilgauskas around like the cutesy puppets in LeBron's Nike commercials.
Howard inside opened up Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu outside, and this inside-outside efficiency was too much for the Cavaliers to handle, even with James playing like the reincarnation of Michael Jordan.
The playoffs aren't this season, and the team Van Gundy saw in Orlando back on Nov. 11 wasn't the same team his Magic eliminated in the playoffs a few months earlier. The Cavaliers had added inside muscle in Shaq O'Neal, and he proved a sturdy test for Howard and anybody else inside the paint.
That game is what had to stick with Van Gundy. He had to remember that 102-93 loss, even if he didn't seem inclined to worry about it much.
It was one game - yes, just one. It was one game played in the optimistic glow of a promising season. The Magic, having added a few pieces from a season ago, was still trying to find its rhythm, finding a way to fit Vince Carter, Matt Barnes and Jason Williams into Van Gundy's rotation and operate with Turkoglu, traded, and Lewis, injured.
Those aren't easy pieces to replace, and the question remains did the Magic err in letting Turkoglu go. Was keeping him better than trying to replace him with Carter?
The 82-game season will sort that out, and it will be a season - it already has been that kind of season - in which Van Gundy will mix and match until he gets all the pieces in sync.
Will the new pieces be as capable as the ones he had at his disposal last season? Will the new pieces give Van Gundy the inside-outside firepower to match the LeBron, his Cavs teammates and their addition of Shaq?
These games in the middle of a season foretell something, regardless of the importance Van Gundy pins on them. He can't expect to absorb losses to the Cavaliers with seeing those losses shake his team's confidence. To lose as the Magic did, 115-106, should tell him this: The Cavaliers, winners of 13 straight, are better.
They proved that their home floor just as James & His Gang did when playing the Magic in Orlando. It was the kind of disheartening loss that had to leave Van Gundy trying to figure out what's gone wrong.
Time for a bit of self-evaluation, perhaps?
Van Gundy won't concede that the Magic needs to do anything so drastic - not after Game 54 of an 82-game season.
"Obviously, the biggest thing is we couldn't stop 'em," Van Gundy said.
He'll be going back to his chalkboard, scheming X's and O's in hopes of coming up with countermoves for the team that's running like Usain Bolt toward a berth against the Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals.
When the two teams do collude in May - and what hoops fan doubts they won't? -- Van Gundy will need to have the countermoves in place. He will need to convince his players, if not also himself, that the Magic is still the better team.
Van Gundy couldn't convince anybody of that Thursday at The Q. He might not be able to do it either when the Magic meets the Cavs in Orlando after the All-Star break, though he didn't seem overly worried about it at this point in the 82-game season.
"We've got a long way to go," he said.
And he does.