ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) -When a popular local columnist predicted the Orlando Magic would miss the playoffs this season, coach Stan Van Gundy e-mailed the story to every player.
Despite acquiring high-scoring swingman Rashard Lewis, the writer reasoned, Orlando lost as much as it gained when Grant Hill and 7-footer Darko Milicic left as free agents. No other Eastern Conference playoff team lost much of anything, while the Boston Celtics gained two All-Stars and the Miami Heat got several months of rest.
Van Gundy's message? The guy is partly right, but the Magic can prove him wrong.
``Just holding the status quo will not get you into the playoffs,'' he said. ``I don't agree that's how it's going to end up. I see his points, and they were valid points.''
The Magic won 40 games last season and crept into the postseason as a No. 8 seed, then got bounced by the Detroit Pistons in four games. All-Star Dwight Howard and other players brooded all summer, but Magic management needed just a few weeks. Coach Brian Hill was fired, Florida coach Billy Donovan was hired and then quit less than a week later to return to the Gators.
It ended when general manager Otis Smith tapped Van Gundy, a close second choice from start.
The 48-year-old former Heat coach and Pat Riley protege has already given the team a new feel. Gone are Hill's half-court sets and scripted plays - many of them dump-offs to Howard that couldn't get past double-teams. Van Gundy preaches a fast-paced, freewheeling offense fed by lockdown defense.
``We're going to work our butts off on the defensive end of the court and then we're going to try to run the ball up the floor,'' Van Gundy said. ``Give them freedom to play the game. We're going to try to play that way until proven we can't.''
Van Gundy also expects to take more 3-pointers - Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu are 39 percent career shooters, and former Duke star J.J. Redick figures to play more minutes. He missed training camp and the preseason last year, never finding his stride in limited action.
Van Gundy told Redick he'd have to get better on defense, and the second-year guard took him seriously. He even volunteered to guard USA Basketball teammate Kobe Bryant during training.
``I wanted to guard him. He's the best player in the NBA, no question,'' Redick said. ``I'm only going to get better from that. My thing for this summer was just to be competitive on the defensive end - to really try as hard as I could to focus mentally and really battle my man.''
Howard gave himself two weeks after Orlando's early playoff exit before getting back to work. The fourth-year player is still only 21 years old, and would be entering his senior year now if he opted for college. He doesn't have professors, but still grades himself.
Last year was a C-plus, Howard says, because he disappeared offensively in the playoffs when the Pistons collapsed on the post.
``I've been shooting all summer, trying to gain confidence in my jump shot,'' Howard said. ``Coach Stan, he's emphasized that I try and shoot the ball instead of always forcing somebody. I think the biggest thing is expanding my game - being able to turn around and take a shot, make the defenses play me a little bit different.''
Howard is already looking more comfortable at the free throw line, shooting 69 percent in the preseason compared with 58 percent last year.
Lewis should alleviate pressure on him in the paint. One of three players Van Gundy can use at shooting guard or either forward, Lewis even trained this summer at point guard to work on ballhandling. His 6-foot-10 size kept him chained to the post in Seattle, but he will likely run the wing with the Magic.
``The paint is (Howard's), he owns the paint,'' Lewis said. ``My job is to come out here and be on the wing and help him rebound on the weak side, shoot 3s.''
Lewis' role could change since the Magic lost forward Tony Battie to a shoulder injury that required surgery just before training camp. But Adonal Foyle, a 6-foot-10 shot-blocking specialist signed from Golden State, will likely fill a lot of those minutes.
The team will have to learn Van Gundy's new system quickly. Orlando plays 18 games by the end of November, with little time to practice after the Oct. 31 opener against the Milwaukee.
``We can't ease into the season and, say, have three quarters of our stuff in and sort of add as we go,'' Van Gundy said. ``We're not going to be able to add much from the first game until December, so we've got to speed things along.''
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