Orlando is getting better defense and rebounding in the fourth quarter.
ORLANDO - This is not the same Magic team that quickly exited the playoffs two years ago, losing the series 3-1 to the Bucks. Nor is it the same team that fell 3-1 in last year's first-round series against the Hornets. This isn't even the same team that blew eight fourth-quarter leads earlier this season.
The Magic team looking to eliminate the East's top seed, the Pistons, in tonight's Game 6 at the TD Waterhouse Centre, is different. Because this is a team that knows how to win in the fourth quarter and finish off an opponent, Tracy McGrady said.
"We were so young and didn't really understand how to close out games," said Orlando's MVP candidate. "I think at times, in games before when we had a lead, we would play not to lose the game instead of playing to win, going out and staying aggressive. We got a little tentative in the fourth quarter, not knowing how to close out games.
"Now, since experiencing that game after game, I think we know how to close out games. We know how to control the tempo of the fourth quarter. We know how to control a game now."
Orlando controls the series 3-2, but Game 7 is in Detroit. Tonight, at home, the Magic can win its first playoff series in seven years.
Or so Doc Rivers hopes. Orlando's coach said McGrady and his teammates are more mature after the futile playoff runs of the past two seasons. And the team has a couple of new faces after the Feb. 19 trade that brought rookie forward Drew Gooden and shooter Gordan Giricek.
Since the trade, the Magic has collapsed once after holding the advantage in the fourth: an ignominious 118-113 overtime loss to Philadelphia at home on March 31.
Gooden, averaging 13.4 points and 12 rebounds a game in the playoffs, brings a dimension not seen in Orlando since the Shaquille O'Neal days. How else could the Magic withstand the Pistons' Ben Wallace, who leads the league with 19.2 rebounds per game in the postseason?
"If you don't get rebounds in the fourth quarter and if you don't play defense in the fourth quarter, no lead is safe," Rivers said. "Not having Drew Gooden at the time, we were not getting rebounds. We would be up 12 or 14 points and teams were shooting until they made it, and on the other hand we were not playing great defense."
"So we became a better defensive team the day that trade was made."
If there is a weakness in Orlando's game this series, it is the inability to get off to a hot start - or prevent Detroit's hot starts. In the past four games, the Magic has faced double-digit deficits. In winning Games 3 and 4, the team overcame that. In losing Games 2 and 5, it certainly didn't.
"It's a concern," Rivers said. "We've had turnovers in the first few minutes, we've gotten in foul trouble. Watching (the Pistons) it looks like they come out ready and our guys are just coming out and getting ready to play. I don't think we've figured that out yet as a team."
Here's a new concern for Rivers after Thursday afternoon's film session: McGrady's health. McGrady, who scored a playoff-low 19 in Wednesday's 98-67 Game 5 loss, complained of sore knees. The fourth-year player has been plagued by mild tendinitis throughout the season.
"To be honest with you I really didn't feel well," McGrady said of Game 5. "Both of my knees were aching like crazy last night. It was the first time my knees were really killing me. Today I feel better, I've been icing them down, and I'll be ready."
Rivers is concerned, but not worried.
"That's always a concern when it affects your best player," Rivers said. "But those types of guys usually find a way of rising. I would say T-Mac will have that type of night."