With Dwight Howard unavailable due to a sore left knee and nobody able to buy a bucket, the Orlando Magic faced an uphill battle for much of the second half in their game against the Phoenix Suns last night. They made an impressive rally with their reserves in the game--Marcin Gortat and Courtney Lee were on the floor in crunch time along with starters Jameer Nelson, Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis--but ultimately came up short in what was a back-and-forth affair in the closing minutes.
|Team||Pace||Efficiency||eFG%||FT Rate||OReb%||TO Rate|
Turkoglu made a jumper from just inside the three-point arc to give Orlando a 112-111 lead with 9 seconds to play. The Suns called a full timeout, then a 20-second timeout after Gortat used Orlando's foul to give on Steve Nash. Standing on the right wing, Grant Hill inbounded the ball to Amare Stoudemire on the right block. As Stoudemire held the ball with Gortat defending, Hill cut along the baseline, aided by a Nash screen. Turkoglu got held-up, and Nelson--Nash's man--failed to switch. Stoudemire found Hill under the basket for the go-ahead layup with 2.7 seconds remaining. The Suns, whose focus seemed to wane in the final minutes, executed the play to perfection; I would have loved to see them use it against any other team. The fact that it killed the Magic tonight--and the fact that it was former Magic guard Grant Hill who benefitted--makes it far less pleasant.
At this point in the game, my live feed cut out, so I was unable to watch the Magic's final play. As I understand it. the Suns forced the ball into Lewis' hands and his three-pointer missed wildly--radio play-by-play man Dennis Neumann said it was at least a foot too far to the right--and the new-look Suns came up victorious.
The biggest concern for the Magic isn't the loss; that they were able to hang with a team of Phoenix's caliber without Dwight Howard says a lot--but rather that they were without Howard to begin with. He was having his way with Phoenix until he went to the locker room during a third-quarter timeout. Apparently, his knee is only sore, and the broadcast crew could not pinpoint the specific play on which he was hurt. Like the strained oblique he suffered against the Clippers on Monday and the bruised sternum he suffered against the Pistons last May, this injury appears to be one that might nag him for some time. Unlike those injuries, however, this one kept him out of the game for good.
And, obviously, the Magic need Howard if they hope to succeed. His 19 points led the team, despite his playing only 23 minutes. He had his way with the rookie Robin Lopez and looked like he was on his way to a big night. That he left the game with the Magic mired in an abysmal shooting slump only complicated matters, as the Magic's shooters had to regain their outside touch without their franchise center to draw defenses away from them.
The Magic finally got on-track, in large part due to Gortat's stellar play off the bench. Orlando's third-string center, whose draft rights it acquired from Phoenix in 2005, tore up the Suns for 8 points, 6 boards, and a block in 13 minutes. He was spectacular--about as much as a third-string center can be spectacular, anyway--and the fact that Stan Van Gundy counted on him, and not on the veteran Tony Battie, is a testament to just what he brought to the game tonight. Immediately after the game, two different Suns bloggers sent me Tweets that both started with the same sentence: "Who is that guy?" Wicked.
Speaking of Van Gundy, he made another excellent move that helped get the Magic back in the game. Brian Cook, who sat on the bench for the entire first half, got the call at the 2:11 mark of the third quarter after a Phoenix timeout. Eight seconds later, he drilled a three-pointer from the left wing to pull Orlando within 6, at 79-73. He missed his next shot, a two-pointer to start the fourth quarter, but connected on another triple to cut the deficit to 87-83. His only contribution the rest of the game was a rebound, and it's entirely possible that Van Gundy left him in one timeout too long. However, I credit Van Gundy for having the confidence to play Cook, who has not earned much tick this season, in a high-pressure situation when his team needed to pick it up from the outside.
And as much as I hate to lay into Turkoglu, whose long jumper would have been the game-winner for Orlando, he really stunk tonight. Perhaps feeling the need to step-up in Howard's absence, Turkoglu rushed shots and seemed to play with blinders on. His mental lapses from the 2006/07 season returned. Observe this fourth-quarter sequence, which picks up with Phoenix holding a 100-95 edge:
06:35 - Turk races down the floor on a fast break ignited by his own rejection of Hill...
06:30 - Only to charge into Louis Amundson, of all people, for an offensive foul. During the TV timeout, Turk is whistled for a technical foul.
06:30 - After the timeout, Leandro Barbosa rattles home the technical free throw. The Suns retain possession. (PHO 101-95)
06:13 - Jason Richardson, whom the Suns acquired Wednesday in a significant trade, bombs a long two from the baseline. (PHO 103-95)
05:57 - Jameer Nelson answers Richardson's jumper with one of his own, connecting from his favorite area--in the free-throw circle. (PHO 103-97)
05:33 - The Magic's defense tightens up and forces Richardson into an awful, off-balance jumper that caroms off the far side of the rim. Turkoglu is in position to either snag the board or to let the ball bounce out of bounds. Either way, the Magic would take possession. Instead, he lets the ball bounce off his person--shin? elbow? behind?--and out of bounds. He is not charged with a turnover on the play, but he might as well have been. Phoenix ball.
05:30 - Orlando catches a break when Amare Stoudemire rushes a jumper over Marcin Gortat, who snags the rebound.
That's a sequence in which Turkoglu potentially erased two Phoenix points, only to give three right back due to his turnover and technical. Then, after his failure to grab a defensive rebound, he gave the Suns another opportunity to score. Thankfully, Stoudemire's itchy trigger finger squandered that Suns possession, but had he connected there, the game may have ended. Either way, Turkoglu played one of his worst games of the season, from a decision-making standpoint.
The Jason Richardson trade is looking like a winner for Phoenix. Richardson scored 21 points in his first game as a Sun. His rust showed, as he threw more than a few errant passes to his new teammates, but that he was able to perform so well in his first game with his new team bodes well for the chances of his succeeding in the desert. The Suns dealt Raja Bell, Nash's best friend on the team, to acquire Richardson. If Nash is sad, he didn't show it tonight. He played a brilliant game, forcing the tempo whenever possible, and killed the Magic in transition. It has become apparent on this road trip that Orlando's transition defense is really lacking, and it's something I hope Van Gundy and his staff work on soon.
My final thought is the following: Turkoglu's shakiness and the Magic's poor second- and third-quarter shooting certainly did them in tonight, but it was Howard's (potential) absence that will do more long-term damage. No matter how hard he plays, Gortat can't possibly replicate Howard's production and efficiency, and Orlando has built its team around the assumption that Howard will be in the middle. Without him, the Magic's shooters will have to find new ways to score, either by driving the ball or by getting free off screens. To that end, it might be time to dust-off J.J. Redick, who has not played in either of Orlando's last 2 games, to see if his excellent away-from-the-ball movement can get him some open looks. Maybe he could ignite the offense off the bench, and in the process get his season back on track.