Pay attention! Celtics/Magic tonight on TNT

Two of the four best teams in the league square off tonight in Orlando. The Celtics come to town riding a six-game winning streak (which followed a four-game losing streak), while the Magic have won seven straight, and 16 of their last 18, which included wins over the Lakers (x 2), the Spurs (x 2) and the Hornets.

Much has been written about the Celtics, so let’s focus on the Magic. Orlando might be playing the best ball of anyone right now, and they’re really starting to remind me of the 1995 Houston Rockets squad that swept Shaquille O’Neal, Penny Hardaway and the rest of the Magic in the Finals to win their second straight title. They have a true center that commands a double-team (Hakeem Olajuwon = Dwight Howard), a slasher on the wing that can also shoot the ball (Clyde Drexler = Hedo Turkoglu), a sharpshooting power forward (Robert Horry = Rashard Lewis), an assassin of a point guard (Kenny Smith = Jameer Nelson) and his young protege (Sam Cassell = Courtney Lee). The Magic aren’t as deep as those Rockets were — remember Otis Thorpe, Vernon Maxwell and Mario Elie? — and while that may be their undoing come playoff time, it’s hard to imagine Boston or Cleveland’s bench dominating anyone.

The Magic are 5th in the league in offensive efficiency and 3rd in defensive efficiency, which is directly related to their ability to hold the opposition to 42.6% from the field. Stan Van Gundy has done a terrific job teaching the core — Howard, Nelson, Turkoglu and Lewis — how to play defense and there isn’t a coach in the league that is doing more with less, at least at the elite-team level. At this point, he’s my choice for Coach of the Year.

Tonight’s game will be a nice test for the young Magic, and their crowd. With the defending champs coming to town, there should be a playoff atmosphere at Amway Arena, with the fans rising to their feet early and often. If the crowd sits on its hands for much of the first half, the team might be in trouble come playoff time. A real home court advantage is crucial to winning in the playoffs — just ask the Celtics.

The game is scheduled for 8 PM ET on TNT.

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