(AP) — The Orlando Magic are going to find out quite a bit about their status among the Eastern Conference’s elite over the next few days.
If the New York Knicks’ latest performance is any indication, they might be on the cusp of joining that group.
The Magic begin a stretch of three games in four nights against some of the East’s top contenders with Tuesday’s visit from the Knicks, who bounced back from a loss to the league’s worst team by beating one of the best.
Dwight Howard was furious with the effort he saw after Orlando (38-22) lost to Sacramento on Wednesday, questioning the desire and dedication of some of his teammates.
The Magic responded Friday with one of their more impressive efforts, throttling Oklahoma City 111-88 behind 40 points from the two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year. They weren’t as dominant Sunday against Charlotte, but a 100-86 win had Howard considering the big picture.
“We’re talented enough to beat anybody,” he said. “We’re equipped, whatever you want to call it … to win a championship. We have to continue to play hard and be consistent with that we do. That’s the only way we’re going to get to where we’re trying to get to.”
Perhaps the biggest week of the season for Orlando begins with its first look at the Knicks (30-27) since the arrival of Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups. That’s followed by a game at Southeast Division-leading Miami on Thursday before a visit from Central leader Chicago on Friday.
“We simply need to take it day-by-day and we need to focus on getting better every night out, no matter who we’re playing,” coach Stan Van Gundy said. “So (beating Charlotte) was just as big as who we’re playing on Tuesday night or Thursday or Friday.”
New York looked like a work in progress Wednesday despite beating Milwaukee 114-108 in Anthony’s debut, then seemed to take a big step backward Friday with a 115-109 loss at league-worst Cleveland.
In the Knicks’ first major test with their new acquisitions, they came through. Down 84-78 in Miami on Sunday with three minutes to play, New York finished with a 13-2 run and got a huge block from Amare Stoudemire in the final seconds to stun the Heat 91-86.
“The bigger the game, the bigger the stage, the bigger they play,” coach Mike D’Antoni said of his team’s star core of Stoudemire, Anthony and Billups – who gave the Knicks the lead for good with a 3-pointer with 1:01 left.
Despite his excitement, D’Antoni is aware New York has plenty of work to do to become a title contender.
“This is our third game in a long process. We aren’t there yet,” D’Antoni said. “Right now, we’re a bunch of good individuals, but to play together and play the way we need to play against good teams will take awhile.”
Orlando beat the Knicks 112-103 at the Amway Center on Dec. 30 behind 24 points and 18 rebounds from Howard. Stoudemire scored a game-high 30, but had just four boards as the Magic outrebounded New York 51-35.
Anthony could help the Knicks get a little revenge. The four-time All-Star averages 28.1 points versus Orlando, his most against any team other than his current club.
Only the Magic attempt more 3-pointers (24.7 per game) than the Knicks (23.7). However, Orlando has made just 31.3 percent of its attempts – fourth-worst in the league – from beyond the arc since Jan. 28.
In that same span, New York’s 3-point defense (42.2 percent) has been the NBA’s worst.
Updated February 28, 2011
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