Dwight mighty in victory over Raptors

Magic centre Dwight Howard goes to the basket against Raptors centre Aaron Gray at the Air Canada...

Magic centre Dwight Howard goes to the basket against Raptors centre Aaron Gray at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ont., March 5, 2012. (MARK BLINCH/Reuters)

RYAN WOLSTAT, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:52 PM ET

TORONTO - For a team that is dealing with the biggest “elephant in the room” in the sport — Dwight Howard’s wish to be sent elsewhere — the Orlando Magic is a remarkably relaxed group.

Most teams likely to imminently part with a three-time defensive player of the year and four-time first-team all-star performer would be tense, morbid, perhaps lacking in confidence.

Not these guys. Even though the rumour mill has encircled the group all season, Orlando came in 24-14 and 12-5 since a four-game swoon to end January before another win, 92-88 over the hometown Raptors.

Howard dominated, scoring 36 points and hauling in 13 rebounds. He missed 10 free throws but only clanked four of 20 field goal attempts.

Of course it helps that Howard, despite his immense size, is really a big kid at heart.

Before the game, Howard was cracking endless jokes with teammates, constantly rewinding an unfortunate dunk attempt by Jason Richardson last time out against the Raptors and generally having a good time. It was as loose a room as we’ve seen this season.

Magic head coach Stan Van Gundy admitted that with the March 15 trade deadline fast approaching, the team might be more affected than it has been.

“Guys are worried about who else is going to be involved in the deal, are they going to be around?” Van Gundy said.

But he also maintained that the group has blocked things out well so far.

“It’s not an easy thing, but none of us have any control over it so it’s just a matter of staying focused on what we can control we’re sort of using the game and practice times we have when we’re on the court as an escape from all of that crap and just being able to play basketball. We’ve done a decent job of it,” he said.

“They’ve been very professional about it,” Raptors bench boss Dwane Casey echoed.

“It’s the talk of the league, so I’m sure it’s going to be on some minds.”

Most notably, it seems, that of point guard Jameer Nelson. Nelson’s in the midst of the worst season of his career, and many believe Howard’s desire to play with new teammates has been the main reason why.

Howard came to play against the Raptors and Nelson came up with a better effort as well — as he always seems to do against Jose Calderon, dating back to a playoff matchup.

But as has been the case for so many nights this season, Toronto stayed within range all game, never allowing a superior club to pull away.

“I feel for our guys because they are putting themselves in a position to win,” Casey said.

The experience factor, you can’t rush it, you can’t teach it, you can’t give it to them. I see fight every night.”

Orlando led by five both at the break and after three, but the Raptors constantly clawed to within a couple.

In the end it wasn’t enough, despite 23 points from DeMar DeRozan and the Raptors fell to 12-26.

ANOTHER STRONG SHOWING

DeRozan continued his best stretch of the season (21 or more points in six of past eight games).

Besides the offence, DeRozan is getting it at the other end as well. Richardson was held to brutal 2-for-10 shooting, while starting two guards had shot 22-56 (39%) in the previous six games, mostly while being defended by DeRozan.

“Just being out there being aggressive, not settling as much as I did earlier in the season, just trying to get to the free throw line,” DeRozan said of his turnaround.

STAN’S A FAN

Count Van Gundy as a fan of Casey.

“He’s done as good a job as anybody in the league this year,” Van Gundy said.

“Taking a team that really for a long time had not had a defensive disposition and really changing the whole culture, which isn’t an easy thing to do. To come into a place where really it’s always been about offence and make it about defence, he’s done a great job of that” … With Amir Johnson sidelined due to the after-effects of banging knees on Sunday, Ed Davis got the starting assignment. … The Raptors got nice production from centres Aaron Gray and Jamaal Magloire. Gray notched a double-double, while Magloire’s impact was more subtle. He fought hard on the boards and riled up Howard by guarding him close.

NICHOLSON A-10’s BEST

Andrew Nicholson has joined some elite company.

The Mississauga native was named Atlantic 10 Conference player of the year on Monday after averaging 25.3 points and 11.5 rebounds over the Bonnies’ last eight conference games.

The former Father Goetz star, who will graduate this year and could crack the first round of the NBA draft led the conference in scoring and was third in rebounding, shooting 62% from the field and 46% from three.

Sean Denison was the last Canadian to earn a conference player of the year award, for Santa Clara in 2007, Juan Mendez did the same for Niagara in 2005. Steve Nash did it twice for Santa Clara (1995 and 1996), Vancouver-born, Seattle-raised Bob Houbregs was the national player of the year for Washington in 1953.

Nicholson became the seventh A-10 player ever to win both rookie and player of the year during his career.

Meanwhile, Holland Landing’s Kevin Pangos was named West Coast Conference newcomer of the year and his Gonzaga teammate Robert Sacre (North Vancouver) was named defensive player of the year.

Toronto’s Myck Kabongo was named to the Big 12 all-rookie team and was an honourable mention for the All-Big 12 team, while Montreal’s Kris Joseph (Syracuse) was named to the all-Big East team and Toronto’s Devoe Joseph (Oregon) landed on the all-Pac 12 squad.


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