Jameer Nelson of the Orlando Magic shoots a layup against Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs during Orlando's 90-78 victory on Thursday night
Photo by Fernando Medina, NBAE/Getty Images
The Orlando Magic earned a victory over the San Antonio Spurs on Thursday night, 90-78, thanks in large part to Jameer Nelson's clutch play. Nelson led all scorers with 24 points, including 21 in the second half, as the Magic held off a late Spurs rally.
I should have seen this result coming.
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The victory I might have predicted, but I had forgotten how much credit the Spurs have earned with the media over the years. Much will be made of Nelson's second-half brilliance, but just as much will be made of the Spurs' playing on the second night of a back-to-back, on the road, against a top-5 team. The Spurs weren't soundly beaten by the Magic; they were merely victims of a rough schedule. And they don't care about the regular season, anyway.
UPDATE: Sure enough...
The schedule was not kind to the Spurs, the oldest team in the league with an average age of 29. San Antonio lost at New Orleans on Wednesday night, and the Magic came out looking to run on the weary Spurs.
''Everybody gets tough back to back,'' Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. ''The timing wasn't great. Coming in at 3:30 (a.m.) wasn't good.
''Orlando will have something in its schedule where they'll have a god-awful back-to-back. It evens out in the end.''
AP recap tipped by 3QC commenter TheGiantSquid.
I don't mean to deny that the Spurs' playing New Orleans last night was a factor. Plenty of their shots came up short tonight... just like they did last night, when they had two days of rest. But it is, frankly, unfair to the winning team to attribute its victory to its opponents' schedule.
In a way, it's fitting that Nelson led the Magic tonight. He plays with a tremendous chip on his shoulder, perhaps moreso than any other Magic player. His spirit really drives this team. Not many people gave him a chance to best Tony Parker tonight, just as not many people will give Orlando a chance to win in May or June. It's frustrating.
Enough with the meta-narrative. Let's talk about the actual game after the jump.
Orlando looked like it was headed for an embarrassing loss after stumbling out of the gate. It fell behind, 9-3, and could not get into an offensive rhythm. The Spurs weren't much more precise, but they seemed calmer and ready to grind out an ugly game if they had to. Dwight Howard and Keith Bogans got the Magic's offense going by scoring the first 9 points in a 12-0 Orlando run; Courtney Lee made the final basket during the spurt, a three-pointer in the corner, thanks to the spacing Howard's and Bogans' baskets created.
For most of the rest of the game, Orlando was comfortably ahead. Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker came up short on most of their jumpers. Ginobili's forays to the rim were even more animated than usual, as Bogans' on-ball defense made things uncomfortable for the Argentinean; Howard's presence in the paint behind him certainly complicated the issue, too. When the Spurs dumped the ball inside to Tim Duncan, their veteran franchise center, Howard defended him well by keeping both arms straight up and, yes, by giving him a few extracurricular bumps. Duncan was at his best when he caught the ball facing the basket, after which point he could simply spot-up for that bank shot he loves so much. Howard is still reluctant to leave the paint to guard shooters, even ones as lethal as Duncan.
At the other end, it was fairly obvious that Howard had not played in more than a week. He missed several gimmes at the rim, ones he might usually dunk, and was bothered by Duncan's physicality. In another indication of Howard's maturity as a player, he did not let Duncan's bumping, grinding, and hacking throw him off his game; he simply dealt it back on the other end while trying to be more patient on offense. And yes, I am aware that Howard barks at the officials every time he believes they missed a call, which is not necessarily the mark of a "mature" player. But in years past, Howard would bark at officials and sulk his way ineffectively through entire games if opponents rattled him enough early, which is why I say he has matured. Kind of.
Howard's rust also showed in his rebounding performance. Although he still finished with a game-high of 14 boards, he missed several others he would typically grab because he mis-timed his jumps. He also fumbled a few away, but that's to be expected against a Spurs team that has quick-handed guards like Ginobili and Roger Mason.
Meanwhile, Nelson continued to do what he's done the entire year. Tonight, he just did it better and more often. Jameer drove to the basket frequently enough to put the defense on-notice, but more often pulled-up for jumpers after his defender went under a screen. Once he made a few of those shots in a row, he completely forgot about passing the ball and instead tried to create for himself off the dribble. It worked. He's playing the best basketball of his career and he's going to take this team places, especially on nights when Hedo Turkoglu (5-of-12 for 11 points) and Rashard Lewis (5-of-15 for 15 points) can't find the range.
A few more individual notes:
For the first time this season, Tony Battie did not play. Marcin Gortat took all 15 minutes Howard left at the center position, and used them well. Although he only scored 2 points and blocked 1 shot, his presence in the lane discouraged penetration and altered several shots. We haven't seen the last of Tony this year, though. I didn't even see him on the bench, which leads me to believe he may have been ill. Odd.
If Brian Cook isn't shooting the ball the second he touches it, he's not doing anything. Throw a lazy entry pass, then cut to the weak side of the floor. I'm not quite sure why he played 12 minutes tonight, nor am I sure how he managed to make both of his two-point attempts but miss (badly) both of his three-point attempts.
Bogans was everywhere tonight. He hustled for loose balls, played great defense, and even managed to grab 9 rebounds. He's playing very well in Mickael Pietrus' absence, which is nice, because it enhances his trade value.
Courtney Lee is playing with almost too much confidence. His left-handed, and-one finish after coming up with a loose ball was nice, as was his quick, decisive release on his three-point attempts. 10 points on 9 shots isn't mind-blowingly efficient, but it's pretty good for a rookie who only last month looked like another Magic draft bust.
For all the talk about the Spurs' ambivalence about winning in the regular season, they sure play like a team that cares. Tim Duncan looked sullen all night, especially after Dwight Howard dunked on his head (can you blame him?), while Michael Finley and Bruce Bowen argued demonstratively over a blown defensive assignment which left Bogans wide-open beyond the three-point line in transition. Nelson delivered him the ball, Bogans drilled the shot, and the two Spurs argued the entire way toward the Spurs' timeout huddle.
Was it just me, or did the Amway Arena seem awfully quiet?
The Magic have tomorrow off before facing the Lakers on Saturday.