Even with the circus that unfolded Thursday morning after shootaround at the Amway Center, as Stan Van Gundy told reporters that Dwight Howard wants him fired and then just minutes later Superman put his arm around his head coach, there is still a game to played Thursday night. Whether or not Van Gundy will be roaming the sideline for the Magic, we'll see. But one thing that does seem more definitive is that Howard will likely play tonight (after dealing with back spasms), and if he does, that obviously changes the Knicks' defensive approach completely.
Here are three things to watch for tonight in Orlando:
1. SUPERMAN'S BODY LANGUAGE
The difference between Howard and the other superstars in the NBA is that sometimes he jokes around too much during games and takes plays off. You have to wonder if that's because no one in the league can stop him, and maybe he gets bored at times being so dominant. People don't really question his work ethic in the offseason or off the court in the training room, but they do when the ball is tipped. That's because occasionally his competitive edge drops off.
That happened last week at the Garden, where Howard and the Magic got completely trounced by the Knicks, 108-86. Reportedly, Howard, along with a few of his teammates, partied until the wee hours of the morning before the game, and based on the ripple effect he created (being that he's the face of the franchise), they clearly didn't care to play. Howard only finished with 12 points and five rebounds -- way below his season averages. And because he didn't show up, that affected the entire team. His impact inside (20.9 points and 14.5 rebounds per game) has enabled his perimeter teammates to make the most 3-pointers this season (553), with the third-highest accuracy (38.0 percent), but that was all lacking on March 28.
So depending on how Howard starts the game will be a big indicator of how things will shape up tonight. Because if he steps on the court wearing his cape, then the Knicks will be in for a physical, tiring (from rotating to guard the Magic's lethal shooters) and grind-out game until the final buzzer sounds.
2. CAN THE KNICKS CLOSE TONIGHT?
Since Jeremy Lin and Amare Stoudemire went down early last week, the Knicks haven't been able to put teams away. In Indiana on Tuesday, they gave up a 17-point lead in the fourth quarter, which led to the loss. In their last four contests, as they've gone 2-2, they lost the fourth-quarter scoring margin three times: 27-16 against the Orlando Magic on March 28 (a win), 26-21 against the Atlanta Hawks on March 30 (a loss) and 40-17 against the Indiana Pacers on April 3 (a loss). The Knicks' -6.0 average fourth-quarter scoring margin in their last three games ranks them second-worst in the league during that stretch.
The Knicks have to make it a point of continuing to execute their defensive game plan for all 48 minutes, no matter how many points they're up on a team. That's something Carmelo Anthony discussed after the Pacers game.
"They just outworked us," Melo said. "We kind of got lax going into the fourth quarter. And they ran away with it. I think we got a little bit complacent, being up 17."
Mike Woodson will also need to balance his minutes better in the second half between the starters and subs, so his front five are fresher down the stretch. He admitted that fatigue was a factor in Tuesday night's loss.
3. CAN HARRELLSON ANCHOR A BETTER PASSING GAME?
Tyson Chandler's value on offense is great for spacing the floor and establishing efficient ball movement around the perimeter. When Chandler's on the bench, things change, as the Knicks turn the ball over 2.3 more times than when he's playing. The Knicks have a higher turnover rate when Josh Harrellson is on the court (same with Jared Jeffries).
While Harrellson's turnovers per game are low (0.6), he clogs the floor a bit more than Chandler and passes don't have all the room to get where they need to go. Considering Chandler is coming off of a 40-minute outing against Indiana, and he's not even 100 percent with a slight groin injury, Woodson may look to extend Harrellson's minutes tonight.
You can follow Jared Zwerling on Twitter.