10 April 2007

Another Reason to Hate the Wizards/Philly Does Us a Phavor

Damn those Washington Wizards and their golden uniforms.

Washington somehow managed to lose to New Jersey despite holding an 89-84 lead with 1:40 to play. Thus, the Nets now have a full one-game lead on the Magic in the East standings. By virtue of having a better intra-conference record, the Nets would get the higher playoff seed if they were to finish the regular season with a record identical to Orlando's. The Magic's job doesn't get any easier, as they visit Detroit tomorrow night to face the conference-leading Pistons. Should they lose that game, any hopes they have of leapfrogging New Jersey for the 7th seed would effectively be dashed. In fact, there's a chance that the Nets may actually move up to the 6th spot, given Washington's free-fall. The Wizards are without their two best players, All-Stars Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler, and have lost five straight games and eight of 10 overall. Meanwhile, the Nets are 6-4 in their past 10 and All-Stars Vince Carter and Jason Kidd are playing their best basketball of the season. On Saturday, they both managed to record triple-doubles in the same game, something that hadn't been done in 18 years.

What I'm getting at is the following: perhaps no team has frustrated the Magic this season the way the Wizards have. They've taken two of the three games between the teams so far this season, including a 112-111 decision in which the Magic had three players score 20 points and still managed to lose -- due in large part, I hasten to add, to a third quarter in which the Magic were outscored 26-19. Why was that loss so horrifying? For one, it was a close game. But more importantly, the outcome gave the Wizards the lead in the Southeast division, which Orlando had lead for much of the season.

The point at which Orlando's and Washington's lines intersect shows the teams' records at the beginning of the week in which that game took place. After that game, it appeared as though the Magic had woken up, as they went on a five-game winning streak immediately afterwards, giving them the division lead once again. After that, their season officially began to unravel, as they proceeded to lose all the ground they made up during that winning streak by dropping their next five games, one of which was an embarrassing 21-point home drubbing at the hands of the Wizards. As shown on the graph, Orlando never regained the division lead after that point.

There was some good news coming out of tonight's NBA action, however. The lowly Philadelphia 76ers defeated the unraveling Indiana Pacers to move the Pacers two games back of Orlando. While I'm certainly thankful that the 76ers gave us a slight cushion, whatever goodwill I have towards them will be eliminated on Saturday, when the Magic visit Philadelphia and hope to solidify their playoff status. Despite their poor record, the 76ers have played well lately, and finish tonight a half-game ahead of New York for the 10th-best record in the East. There is still an outside shot that Philadelphia can make the playoffs -- they are four games back with five left to play -- so they will certainly have incentive to play hard. However, budding star Andre Iguodala is battling back trouble and may have to sit out against the Magic. That bodes well for Orlando, which needs every break it can get to reach the postseason.

The message from Philly's game tonight is as follows: the postseason chase, like politics, makes for strange bedfellows. The Magic have every reason to loathe the 76ers, not only because of this Saturday's contest but also because of 6th-seeded Philadelphia's improbable 3-1 playoff victory over 3rd-seeded Orlando in 1999. Okay, that happened a long time ago; hell, Penny Hardaway was still playing for the Magic at that point. Still, grudges can be good to hold if they provide motivation, and although nobody currently on either team played in that series, the Magic should still be mindful that this Philadelphia franchise prematurely ended their last legitimate shot at a title.

Go get 'em, boys.

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