The Orlando Magic have already taken down two of the Western Conference's division leaders on their road trip. Before heading back home, there's another one standing in their way.
A night after Orlando polished off the West's best team, the Northwest-leading Denver Nuggets await on Saturday as the Magic look to close a perfect four-game trip and improve upon the league's best road record.
With much of the attention on Boston and Cleveland in the East, Orlando (32-8) hasn't garnered much of the spotlight. But so far on a tough four-game trip west, the Magic have made a convincing case that they're one of the best teams in the league.
Orlando knocked off Southwest Division-leading San Antonio on Sunday night to kick off the trip, then hit an NBA record 23 3-pointers Tuesday in a 32-point victory in Sacramento.
The Magic had already beaten the Pacific-leading Los Angeles Lakers at home last month, but they'd never swept them in the 20-year history of the franchise. That changed Friday night, as Jameer Nelson delivered 28 points -- 15 in the fourth -- and Dwight Howard had 25 points and 20 rebounds in Orlando's 109-103 win at Staples Center.
"It was a big-time win," Nelson said. "They were trying to out-tough us, but we got tough when we needed to. We have a swagger about ourselves, knowing we're going to get back in the game if we're down."
The victory was the Magic's sixth straight overall and lifted their record to an NBA-best 16-5 away from home.
"We're flying under the radar. Nobody's really noticing us," Nelson said. "At the same time, it's fine with us. Everybody in this locker room knows the type of team we have and knows what we're capable of.
Orlando is the East's best 3-point shooting team, connecting on 40.2 percent of its attempts from beyond the arc. But while the Magic were among the league leaders from the 3-point line last season, their defense has been the biggest reason for their climb toward the top of the East.
Last season Orlando allowed 99.0 points per game, but 40 games into this season it's yielding an average of 93.9 points, fifth-best in the NBA.
The other significant difference for the Magic has been the rise of Nelson from an adequate point guard to a star. Nelson has upped his scoring average from 10.9 points per game to 16.9, and his 50.8 shooting percentage is the best of any guard in the league.
He's been Orlando's best player so far on the road trip, averaging 24.3 points and 8.0 assists while shooting 64.7 percent (11-for-17) from 3-point range.
Nelson will have his hands full with the Nuggets (27-13), and he's certainly familiar with Denver's point guard. While Billups was with Detroit, Nelson was 4-15 against him head-to-head including two postseason series losses.
Billups has made the difference since being traded to the Nuggets in early November, and he's stepped up even more since Carmelo Anthony went down with a broken right hand.
Since Anthony was hurt on Jan. 5, Billups has averaged 25.0 points while Denver has won three of four. He had 26 on Thursday against Phoenix despite playing with the flu, and the Nuggets rallied from a first-half deficit to force overtime, where they won 119-113.
"Just trying to get through it," said Billups, who claims he's been sick since the end of December. "Once the game starts you've got to do what you've got to do."
Billups is averaging 21.5 points and 6.6 assists versus Orlando in the last 26 games in which he's been healthy.
The Nuggets have won five straight at home against the Magic despite losing 15 in a row in Orlando.