ORLANDO -- Despite Wednesday night's win over Boston, the Magic in some ways are still fighting the battle of perception versus reality.
"All I hear about our team is that we're soft and everything else," Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy said. "People think we win games just by jacking up 3s. Very few people have realized that we've won games at the defensive end of the floor."
The reality, as Boston coach Doc Rivers acknowledged before the game, is that Orlando has become an elite defensive team, and that's the central reason they're threatening to finish ahead of the Celtics in the Eastern Conference.
Check out the leaderboard in defensive efficiency, for instance, and you'll note that the Magic are barely behind the Celtics. Orlando gives up 98.9 points per 100 opponent possessions, good for second in the league and just a hair behind Boston's league-leading 98.7 mark.
It's no surprise where it all starts -- with center Dwight Howard. He's threatening to become only the fifth player to lead the league in blocks and rebounding in the same season, with Wednesday's game-saving block of Paul Pierce becoming the latest spectacular swat on his résumé. Howard's board work is also why the Magic lead the league in defensive rebound rate at 76.2 percent, even though they're effectively playing with just one big man most of the time.
"Dwight has been more consistent with his effort defensively," Van Gundy said. "I think he's the best defensive big guy [in the league] when he's really focused and wants to bring it. And his focus and consistency has been a lot better. He's a great help defender and he can block shots, he can guard his own guy in the post, he can defend pick-and-rolls. Yes, I'd start with him."
And knowing that Howard is around enables the Magic's perimeter players to be more aggressive than they otherwise might be.
"We don't want to just rely on Dwight," said Hedo Turkoglu, "but we know he's got our back."
But it goes much deeper than that. The Magic's other players have bought in, too -- Rashard Lewis most notably. He had to transition from being an offensive-minded small forward in Seattle to being much more of a two-way player as a power forward with the Magic, matching up against the likes of Kevin Garnett and Carlos Boozer on a nightly basis. The return of Tony Battie from injury and the development of backup center Marcin Gortat has also given the Magic a much deeper frontcourt rotation.
Meanwhile, rookie Courtney Lee has become the team's defensive ace on the wings, challenging the likes of Boston's Ray Allen, whom he held to 16 points Wednesday. Lee also denied Allen the ball on a key late-game inbound play that forced Boston to burn its last timeout.
"Talking to our scouts last year when they made the pick, what they really liked was his maturity and poise," Van Gundy said. "I don't feel like we're playing with a rookie out there. He doesn't make many mistakes. He'll get caught in some rotation problems at times, but it's more an experience thing -- there are some situations that veterans have seen 500 times and can anticipate coming that he can't. But from a poise standpoint, he's like having a veteran."
But if there's a common thread in all of this, it is Van Gundy. Orlando ranked sixth in defensive efficiency the season before he arrived but has steadily improved under his watch -- it was fifth last season and, as we mentioned before, is currently second this season.
It's not the first time he's improved a team's defense, either -- his club in Miami went from 10th under Pat Riley to ninth and sixth in his two full seasons at the helm. And of course, it runs in the family -- brother Jeff's teams were annually among the leaders in defensive efficiency when he coached the Knicks and Rockets.
In the end, the Magic's defensive ascendancy is likely to result in honors for both Howard and Stan Van Gundy. Howard has the inside track on the league's Defensive Player of the Year award, and with good reason -- a team full of perimeter players is challenging for the league's No. 1 defensive ranking thanks to his efforts.
As for Van Gundy, he has to be considered the front-runner for Coach of the Year. Not one living soul expected the Magic to win 61 games this season, but that's what they're on pace to accomplish. If they should pull it off, it would be more wins in a season than the franchise had ever won with Shaquille O'Neal.
And contrary to popular belief, it wouldn't be because of their 3-point shooting. Orlando does that well, too, of course, but at the core this is an elite defensive team and one that's still seriously misunderstood.
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.