ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) -When Stan Van Gundy's top three guards went down with injuries, the Orlando Magic won.
When Dwight Howard, his All-Star center, missed a couple of games with a sore knee, the Magic won.
The way Orlando is going, it may even be able to get a smile out of its notoriously pessimistic coach.
``He is happy, but you won't see it,'' forward Rashard Lewis said of Van Gundy. ``He's probably behind closed doors when he smiles.''
Van Gundy has plenty of reasons to be happy.
The Magic are off to a 19-6 start and were leading the Southeast Division by 3 1/2 games entering play Wednesday. It's the second-best start in the franchise's 20-year history.
``I have to feel good about what they've done so far, no question,'' Van Gundy said. ``The cautionary thing is that in this league, things change overnight. What you've done in the first 25 games doesn't mean anything in the 26th game, or 27th game. You just have to be ready.''
the Eastern Conference and the NBA title.
``These are definitely two statement games, big games for us,'' Lewis said. ``This will let us know if we are an elite team.''
Backup point guard Anthony Johnson, who held the backcourt together when Jameer Nelson, Keith Bogans and Mickael Pietrus all missed time with injuries, cautioned not to read too much into this stretch.
``I don't think these two games cement us as pretenders or contenders,'' Johnson said. ``Nothing matters in December, January, February. No matter what goes down in these two games, we still have a lot of work ahead of us.''
Howard is expected back against the Spurs. He bruised his knee during a fall against Phoenix last week, and said he should be back to normal after a few days of rest.
``It's a bruise. That's all it is,'' Howard said. ``It's just like if I bruised my elbow. Just ice it. I don't think it will stop me from doing what I do best. It's not chronic.''
Van Gundy said the Magic are holding Howard back in practice, but won't do so in games.
``His knee won't know the difference between 32 minutes and 36,'' Van Gundy said. ``It's what we do in between (games). We have to manage as we go, so we're not pounding on him too much.''
nutes as a reserve against San Antonio.
One of the reasons for the Magic's success has been their backups. With Pietrus, point guard Nelson (hip) and Bogans (thumb) out for at least a week, the Magic have gotten solid play from J.J. Redick and Johnson.
With Howard missing, the Magic have gotten the usual capable job from 12-year veteran Tony Battie and a startling performance from seldom-used backup center Marcin Gortat. The second-year player from Poland, who excelled in a cameo in the 2008 playoffs, notched his first career double-double against Golden State.
Gortat logged only 32 minutes in the first seven games - 26 fewer than he did in his two-game stretch as a starter, including a 16-point, 13-rebound performance against the Warriors.
Gortat said he's hoping his strong play will lead to more minutes when he returns to a reserve role once Howard is healthy.
``That's what I learned last couple of weeks,'' Gortat said. ``Everything can change day to day. I'm ready for that. Hopefully not to sit for 48 minutes.''
Van Gundy said the return of Pietrus and the strong play from Gortat, forward Brian Cook and Redick have complicated the normal eight-player rotation.
``It gets difficult to find minutes for those guys,'' he said. ``We, conceivably, with everyone healthy, can play 10 guys - not 11 or 12. That will leave some guys out.''
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