"Strange stuff seems to happen in this building," says forward Dennis Scott. "I'm not sure why, but our confidence level is like the difference between night and day at home and on the road. At home it seems the coach can go down our bench and say, 'Eeny Meeny Miny Mo, who's going to take over this quarter?' "
Unfortunately for the Magic, on the road Eeny gets double-teamed, Meeny and Miny throw up bricks, and there's no Mo at all. Orlando's numbers tell the story (chart, page 39). The Magic scores six fewer points on the road than at home and allows eight more points away from the O-rena. "It's all part of our growth process," says coach Brian Hill. "At home we have a little bit more of a swagger that says we will beat anybody. What we lack is maturity, a belief that you can walk into any building and win. Sometimes people lose perspective because Shaq and Penny are already household names. But remember, neither of those guys has turned 25."
The callow Magic sometimes loses its aggressiveness in enemy territory. Take a 93-82 defeat in Portland on Dec. 3. Orlando was outrebounded 67-31 and attempted 21 fewer free throws than the Trail Blazers. Especially in fourth quarters away from home, the Magic often becomes tentative and unimaginative. Plan A is to dump the ball down low to Shaq. If that doesn't work, then the perimeter shooters start firing up three-pointers.
It doesn't help matters that Orlando reached the NBA Finals last June, only six years after its birth. "In nine months we went from a team hoping to win one playoff game to sizing our fingers for championship rings," says player personnel director John Gabriel. "Many people around the league think we just got lucky in the lottery. We've become a team that clubs love to hate."
That isn't the only downside to the Magic's precocity. "I think that because we got to the Finals last season, the heads around here got a little too big," says power forward Horace Grant, who, with three championship rings from his days with the Bulls, knows something about what it takes to win an NBA title. "We're a little spoiled."
The Magic is certainly pampered. Orlando players live and work in a sunny boomtown. They travel on a $30 million Boeing 737 complete with big-screen televisions and Shaq-sized beds. They practice in a state-of-the-art facility. Is the good life making it tough to concentrate?
Magic coaches have tinkered with lineups, rotations, even colors. In the first half of the season Orlando was 2-5 while wearing black uniforms, 7-9 in blue. Gabriel believes the Magic should be thinking Celtics green. "Larry Bird and Kevin McHale used to say they got their biggest thrill from silencing crowds on the road," he says. "That's the state of mind our guys must reach."
It would be easy to blame Orlando's woes on injuries. The Magic has played only 11 games with the starting lineup that carried it to the NBA Finals. Grant missed 15 games with various leg injuries, and Shaq sat out 26 with a busted thumb and leg ailments. Still, during the first half of the season the Magic showed about the same spunk with Shaq (19-7) as without him (15-7) and, despite all the injuries, never lost at home.
"They just don't have that road toughness," says Detroit shooting guard Joe Dumars, who helped lead the Pistons to two NBA championships. "It's as if they think these February games don't mean anything. You can't be smiling and laughing. You have to be all business on the road."
Yet in the aftermath of the debacle in Detroit, everybody in the Orlando locker room was smiling and laughing. Everybody, that is, except Grant, the soul of the Magic and the only guy in the room who owns an NBA championship ring. "We've won so many games at home that I think guys believe that we can just turn it on like a light switch," Grant said disgustedly. "Until we start playing as a team, until guys stop worrying about their individual statistics, until we play with some heart and effort, we'll never win a title."