ORLANDO –- It would be great fun if the Magic and the Heat would fully embrace their potential rivalry and immerse themselves in trash talk, hard fouls and gratuitous gloating.
Maybe someday it will come to that -- after all, they have all the needed ingredients, from the regionalism to dislike within the front offices to sometimes loudmouthed stars. While the teams largely attempt to diffuse the rivalry aspect of their next meeting, which is Thursday night at Amway Center, there’s some grounded methodology.
Each team is still trying to figure out what is going on with itself, much less what is happening with the in-state competition.
It’s jarring to consider how much has happened to both teams since the last time they met, which was on Thanksgiving Eve in a 104-95 Magic win.
That loss, which saw LeBron James and Dwyane Wade fail to help each other out in the stretch run as the Magic pulled away, dipped the Heat to 8-7. Coach Erik Spoelstra had just been called out by Phil Jackson on a radio show as a candidate to get fired sooner rather than later. And President Obama was giving interviews commenting on the Heat’s struggles, suggesting that they needed more time.
James was routinely finishing games with more turnovers than assists while playing stretches at point guard, a position he said he didn’t really like to play. Chris Bosh was complaining that he didn’t completely understand where his shots were coming from in the offense. Wade was in the midst of one of the worst shooting slumps off his career. Just two days prior, the Heat announced Udonis Haslem was out indefinitely because he needed surgery on his foot.
“It’s going slower than we all thought,” James lamented after the loss. “At some point, we’re going to have to figure it out.”
While the Heat were in their locker room trying to disarm the critics, down the hall the Magic were in high spirits. They were in the midst of a 15-4 start, exactly the type of performance many were expecting. They were even getting great production from Vince Carter, who seemed to be a vital cog in many wins. When they beat the Heat, the Magic were 7-1 when Carter scored 13 points or more and just 3-3 when he didn’t.
In victory, Magic coach Stan Van Gundy playfully mocked Obama for even bothering to discuss the Heat.
"We got to get some people back to work; I don't think [Obama] needs to be worried about turning the Heat around,” Van Gundy said after the game. “Let Erik [Spoelstra] worry about that, because Erik certainly isn't turning the economy around.”
Taking that snapshot, it is hard to compute exactly where the two teams stand now. And with that realization, it is even harder to predict where they might be when they meet for their final regular-season game in exactly a month.
Of course, Orlando has since pretty much blown up its team in a large December trade that shipped out Carter, Rashard Lewis and Marcin Gortat, brought in Gilbert Arenas and Jason Richardson and brought back Hedo Turkoglu.
After some initial success following the deal, the Magic are just 6-6 in the past 12 games. That stretch includes a loss to Memphis earlier this week that brought out a much more sober Van Gundy than the guy cracking jokes about the Heat in November.
"We're not ready to contend," Van Gundy said after the loss to the Grizzlies. "We don't defend hard enough for long enough, and we're going to see if over the next 10 weeks now if it'll change.”
That came exactly a week after Dwight Howard lamented a home loss to the Pistons and the Magic’s inconsistent play.
“Either we get it together or we’re just going to be a playoff team that doesn’t win a championship,” Howard said.
Meanwhile, since they last visited Central Florida, the Heat have ditched that near-.500 record and traded it in for the contender status they were perhaps prematurely awarded last July. Their 21-1 record from post-Thanksgiving through mid-January vaulted them past the sluggish and metamorphizing Magic and briefly even into first place in the Eastern Conference.
Then, just as soon as they’d looked like they’d be doing the laughing, the Heat started to appear fragile, as a round of injuries sent them on a 2-6 slide that battered their egos. They arrive in Orlando with a three-game win streak but without a great deal more cohesion than they had back in November.
The team’s expected core lineup -- Wade, Bosh, James, Haslem and Mike Miller -- has yet to spend a second on the floor together. And Miller hasn’t played more than a handful of meaningful minutes with the rest of the group even though the season is 48 games old.
When all of that is digested, it’s simple to see why these two squads haven’t exactly been counting down the days until their next meeting, which is now here.
They’ve been a little busy.