ORLANDO, FLA. (AP) - At the end of a grueling 2 1/2-hour practice Thursday, Dwight Howard gathered his Orlando Magic teammates to deliver a rare pep talk complete with strong words.
"I don't get impressed if we come out and practice hard," he said, recalling the talk. "That's easy. We've been a hardworking team every day in practice, but us as a team, we have to be able to go out and play hard in the game."
Even the Magic aren't impressed with themselves lately.
They return home losers of five of their last six games, a first-place cushion erased and a schedule that only gets tougher around the holidays. Not that they needed a reminder.
Frustration has been simmering since an odd stomach flu swept through about half the team two weeks ago and sidelined Howard, Jameer Nelson, J.J. Redick and Mickael Pietrus for at least two games each. Ryan Anderson, who lost eight pounds because of the ailment, also has been sidelined with a sprained right foot.
"It threw us off a lot," Howard said.
Things finally spilled over after a 111-94 loss in Denver on Tuesday night in which Orlando was outscored 32-16 in the fourth quarter, with Carmelo Anthony blowing by Magic defenders at will. Howard all but called out his teammates' poor defense afterward, and Magic coach Stan Van Gundy was fuming over a lack of effort and focus _ again _ from everybody.
"I just think we've sort of very quickly here lost our identity as a defensive team," Van Gundy said. "But within two weeks, I think we can get it back just as quickly if we're committed to doing it."
Equally troubling is that Orlando can't explain how things have turned so sour, so fast _ or, more importantly, how to reverse the rut.
A team that has gone to the NBA finals and Eastern Conference finals the last two seasons and spoke of a championship-or-bust goal again this year still has all the same problems of the past: Late-game collapses, poor rebounding and a rotation that _ while not helped by injuries and illnesses _ still isn't settled.
The one constant has been to pin the blame on a lack of energy and focus with the belief that things will turn around if players simply outwork their opponents and stick to the game plan.
"We know we're a good team," forward Rashard Lewis said. "We showed that in preseason and in the beginning of the year. We've just been in a little slump lately."
The Magic are already in the middle of perhaps their toughest stretch this season.
They played seven of their last eight on the road, including a horrendous 1-3 West Coast trip _ losing at Utah, Denver and Portland, with the only victory coming against the lowly Los Angeles Clippers _ but will find little comfort with a return home.
After Saturday's game against Philadelphia, Orlando plays at Atlanta before hosting Dallas, San Antonio and a Christmas Day showdown against Boston _ the same team that eliminated them in the East finals last season.
"I actually think in some ways that's really good right now because we're going to have to play a lot better to get wins in this stretch," Van Gundy said. "You're not going to have anybody in these five games where you're just going to be able to show up, play mediocre basketball and get a win. I think it forces us to really raise our level and our intensity."
The Magic's slide has been magnified with the rival Miami Heat and Celtics surging with winning streaks of 10 and 11 games, respectively, entering Thursday. That knocked Orlando from first to fourth place in the East behind Chicago, unfamiliar territory for a Magic that has won three straight division titles.
The Magic, for now, are trying to draw on their experience from such struggles. They went through a similar stretch in January last season when they lost seven of nine, only to rally by going 33-8 to finish with the NBA's second-best record.
"We've been through it before. There's no need to panic or worry or do anything crazy," Howard said. "It's only December."