Even when the team does work out, it's no Daly grind. A recent shootaround was temporarily interrupted when Grant and Anderson put Armstrong in a headlock to get the point guard to stop singing. This laxity has created an odd role reversal. Several veterans are quietly wondering if the team shouldn't be spending a bit more time working on its sets. "I think it's going to be tough for us to keep up our success without practicing," says Hardaway "You're not going to be sharp with your execution unless you work on it." Even Grant, whose creaky, 33-year-old knees could use the rest, says, "I welcome the days off now, but when the playoffs start, we'll have to practice more."
Daly has persuaded his players to buy into his defense-oriented philosophy, but his true legerdemain lies in managing personalities and extracting the most from his players. As was the case when he lee the Pistons to back-to-back titles in 1989 and 1990, Daly doesn't suffer softness gladly but players who carry their weight can expect to get minutes. "One thing I like about this job is that you're continually learning about players," says Daly. "This group is responsive and cares about winning. If one guy has gotten injured, another guy has jumped right in."
As one might expect from a unit that includes two Armstrongs (veteran guard B.J. is the other) and a Strong (forward Derek), Orlando's bench is a wellspring of strength. What one wouldn't expect is that two rookies are key members and often figure prominently in crunch time. One, versatile swingman Matt Harpring, plays with a perpetually pissed-off look on his face and absorbs more punishment than a crash-test dummy. The other greenhorn, Michael Doleac, has been indispensable as a reserve center and power forward. Though his visage is pure Opie Taylor, Doleac, unlike Austin, doesn't mind mixing it up underneath. A biology major at Utah—he needs two classes to graduate—who has aspirations of attending medical school, Doleac recently sat in on a surgery performed by the Magic's team doctor, James Barnett. "He scoped a guy's knee by making a small incision and working off the monitor," says Doleac. "It only lasted about half an hour, but I loved it."
One teammate who's less exuberant about knee surgery is Hardaway. A player whose name was once invoked in those who-will-fill-the-Jordan-vacuum conversations, Hardaway has missed 86 games over the past two seasons on account of injuries to his left knee and leg. Just as his Li'l Penny alter ego seems a thing of the past, there have been murmurs that Big Penny's best years are behind him. When Hardaway, 27, started the season, he looked like a shadow of his former self, settling for jump shots and getting caught flat-footed on defense. He even endured the first scoreless game of his career when he went 0 for 7 against the Celtics on Feb. 24.
In March, however, after Anderson was felled by a hamstring injury, Daly inserted Armstrong at point and shifted Hardaway to the two spot. Since the switch—which appears to be permanent, even with Anderson healthy again—Hardaway has reverted to his old self, averaging more than 26 points a game. "I've always told people that shooting guard is where I belong, where I play the best," says Hardaway, who is likely to exercise an out clause in his contract after this season but re-sign with Orlando.
Hardaway shakes his head violently when asked if this season is at all about redemption, about getting back to where he once belonged. But Penny's skin has always been phyllo-dough-thin, and a few weeks ago he let down his guard after Charlotte's Derrick Coleman, in a trash-talk monologue, told him he was washed up. "Apparently a lot of people around the league feel the same way," Hardaway said afterward. "But I promise you, you're going to see a different Penny Hardaway. I'm not going to have people disrespecting me."
How well he sticks to his word may determine the team's fate. There is no shortage of skeptics who see the Magic's unremarkable roster and postulate that in the playoffs the Eastern Conference's surprise front-runners will go poof! and vanish in a cloud of smoke. On the other hand, with Hardaway on top of his game, with an endearing point guard on a caffeine-sugar bender, and, with a deep and well-rested cast of complementary players, Orlando might just magically reappear in the NBA Finals.