Durant, Thunder welcome Magic to OKC
The Orlando Magic come into opening night facing the real possibility that their best player won't be on their roster by the end of the season.
Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder, meanwhile, appear to be in it for the long haul together, a partnership they hope can get them to the NBA Finals after just falling short a season ago.
First, the Thunder must still face a Magic team that is centered by three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard.
Howard sent the city of Orlando into a panic this offseason by requesting a trade from the only franchise he has ever known. Though Magic general manager Otis Smith still hopes to keep Howard in town for the long haul, he may be left with no choice down the road with his All-Star able to become a free agent at season's end.
"I'm willing to keep him in this uniform as long as I can possibly keep him in this uniform. That may mean, as I said, all the way up until the end of the season," Smith said during camp. "I think I told [the media] that the first day. That really hasn't really changed. Our objective is to keep him in a Magic uniform as long as we possibly can. With that said, we could end up going to the end of the season."
A flurry of disappointing postseason finishes could have factored into Howard's decision to request his trade. The Magic made it to the NBA Finals in 2009, but was bounced out of the first round last year following an elimination in the conference finals the previous season.
With Howard still in tow to center a solid core that contains point guard Jameer Nelson and shooting guard Jason Richardson, the Magic are looking to reach the postseason for a sixth straight season but will likely be dealing with constant questions about Howard's status until a trade is finally made.
"It's not calmed down, but like I told the guys 'I'm here right now. That's the only thing that matters.' There's no need to talk about any trades or whatever is going on on ESPN or in the paper," Howard said of the circus-like atmosphere in Orlando. "Don't bring it in the locker room and don't bring it on the court. Our job is to get better and that's the focus."
Orlando split its two preseason games against Miami, overcoming a 23-point, first-half deficit to win the finale. The Magic have won nine of their last 11 openers and are 5-3 on Christmas Day.
Hedo Turkoglu is likely to play for Orlando tonight after missing the club's second preseason game with a left hip contusion.
The Thunder should also be at full strength and that means Durant and Russell Westbrook will be looking to give the Magic defense fits. The duo helped get Oklahoma City to the conference finals last season, but the club was eliminated in five games by the eventual champion Dallas Mavericks.
Oklahoma City is returning the majority of its core from last year and that familiarity led to the Thunder winning both of their preseason games and leaving head coach Scott Brooks pleased with how his club enters the season.
"I give ourselves a pretty good score," said Brooks after his team's final preseason game, a win over the Mavericks. "I think in the last 12 days of training camp and the two games were good. I thought the attention to detail, the concentration level by the guys everyday, every shoot around was very good. We have a team that believes in each other."
Behind 27.7 points a game from Durant, the Thunder won the Northwest Division a season ago and that will be just the club's first goal in what it hopes is a very successful campaign. Getting off to a good start could prove tough though as Oklahoma City is just 1-11 on Christmas Day.
These two clubs split their two-game series last year, with each team winning once at home. The Magic, though, have won nine of the past 11 meetings overall and try to avoid a third straight defeat in Oklahoma City.