ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) - It's been only a handful of days since the NBA underwent it's latest talent shift at the trade deadline.
In the aftermath, two truths are clear for the Orlando Magic heading into the regular season stretch: First, the Eastern Conference is a much tougher league. And second, hardly no one gives the Magic much of a chance to be the team that comes out of it.
The Magic could change that latter perception this week. Tuesday night the Magic get their first look at Carmelo Anthony in a New York Knicks' jersey. Then, they conclude a rugged three-game stretch with back-to-back games against Miami and Chicago, who are currently second and third in the East standings.
"It's a challenging stretch, that's for sure," said Magic coach Stan Van Gundy, whose team has won two straight and four out of its last five after beating Charlotte Sunday night. "You're going New York, Miami (and) Chicago on a back-to-back. And then Portland, and then you head out west basically for the rest of the month."
He said that the stakes are very clear in the Magic's final 22 games.
"We'll be forced to play every night or suffer the consequences if we don't play well," Van Gundy said. "And I think that's a good mindset and focus to have - that you have to play very well to get a win. You're not going to get anything given to you in this stretch."
The Magic followed up a season-best nine-game winning streak in January by going 9-9 over their next 18. Eight of the nine losses during that stretch were to teams with above .500 records. Before Orlando beat the Los Angeles Lakers on Feb. 13, it hadn't beaten a winning team since Jan. 8.
Minus their humbling 111-105 loss to Sacramento, the Magic have made progress in their three games since the All-Star break. Dwight Howard had 40 points and 15 rebounds in a decisive win over Oklahoma City. Then Sunday night against the Bobcats, a struggling Gilbert Arenas broke out of an 0 for 18 slump from 3-point range by connecting on four shots from beyond the arc.
But it's Howard who has stood out, putting up numbers that have him firmly in the MVP discussion.
Over the past five games he is averaging 30.8 points, 13 rebounds and 3.2 blocks per game. He is also shooting 72 percent from the floor and 70 percent from the free throw line. He was named the East's player of the week on Tuesday.
Howard said that the Magic made some positive strides in their wins over Oklahoma City and Charlotte, but that there is still room for improvement. He said he was most encouraged by the 26 assists the Magic had against Charlotte.
"That's a good sign for us - we have to keep it up," Howard said. "On the offensive end, we have to move the ball, play the game. On the defensive end, we have to get stops. And if we do that every night on a consistent basis, our numbers will go up, offensively and defensively."
Howard made headlines last week when he called out his teammates for a lack of effort following the Sacramento loss. Magic guard Jason Richardson said Howard's message has been heard.
"If we want to be considered a contender, we got to start on Tuesday night," Richardson said. "We got to go out there and play hard and be ready. This is kind of a chance to redeem ourselves. We haven't played against some of the top teams well, but I think we have a chance this week to show people we're serious about trying to win a championship here."
New York is sort of similar to Orlando in that they are also trying to adjust following a massive reshaping of their roster.
The Knicks followed up a loss at Cleveland Friday with a big win at Miami on Sunday. But Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni said that playing good competition always is the best barometer.
"It shows you where you are," he said. "Can we duplicate what we did in Miami? I don't know yet. It's too early. But this will be another good test for us."