The Orlando Magic had yet another night to forget against the Detroit Pistons, as they suffered their first loss since Game 5 of last season's NBA Finals, 85-80, thanks to sloppy and uninspired play. The Pistons' combination of 3 diminuitive scoring guards--Ben Gordon, Rodney Stuckey, and reserve Will Bynum--combined for 65 of Detroit's 85 points on 20-of-45 shooting. More importantly for Detroit, they nullified Dwight Howard and Marcin Gortat, the Magic's only centers, by driving aggressively at them and drawing fouls. The Magic's offense was out-of-sync all night, looking as bad as it ever has under Stan Van Gundy. Vince Carter returned after a 1.5-game absence due to a sprained ankle and led the Magic with 15 points, but shot just 6-of-16 from the field and, worse yet, was unable to get on the floor in crunch time as his ankle acted up on him. With no go-to scorer available, the Magic withered with the game in the balance, and Detroit escaped with a well-deserved win.
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Allow me to paraphrase one of my earlier Magic/Pistons recaps--I'm not sure which one it was, since all the Magic's losses to Detroit blend together in my mind--but if they aren't going to defeat Detroit when it's missing its two best players in Richard Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince, when are they going to defeat them? What's it going to take for the Magic to get over the hump against the Pistons, in general? This futility against Detroit, over the course of several seasons, has moved past the "comic" stage and into the "tragic" one.
In any case, the Magic were a disjointed, out-of-sync lot this evening. Despite their tip-to-horn poor play, they led by 3 at the half and looked to be a few made baskets away from permanently wresting control of the game from the Pistons. But "flat" doesn't adequately describe the Magic's second-half offense, which scored 39 points on 11-of-36 shooting, with 10 turnovers.
The biggest issue for Orlando, at least offensively, was its utter refusal to drive the ball to the basket. The Magic's reputation as a one-dimensional, three-point-shooting gimmick team is a bit exaggerated, thanks to the media, but tonight they played right into that stereotype. 35 of their 79 shots came from beyond the arc, while they only converted 10. Ryan Anderson was the most egregious offender, taking 11 of his 14 shots from long-range... and making just 1. Meanwhile, the Magic managed a mere 16 free-throw attempts (to the Pistons' 38). Carter and Jameer Nelson, the Magic's best perimeter scorers, took 13 threes and 0 foul shots. Just a lazy, complacent showing from the Magic, two days after they blitzed the Toronto Raptors for 17 makes in 29 attempts from downtown.
I really can't say enough about how Detroit earned this win. I've received several complaints about the officiating on Twitter, and maybe it looks bad in the box score, as the Magic committed 30 fouls to the Pistons' 17. However, none of the calls that went against the Magic were particularly puzzling, and I don't believe a few more whistles going Orlando's way would have swung the game in its favor. Tonight, the Pistons outclassed the Magic. There's not much more to it than that. And if coach John Kuester's game plan was to use his small lineup to attack the Magic's defense, get their bigs in foul trouble, and subsequently earn foul shots, bravo to him and to his team. Detroit doesn't have a credible offensive presence inside--this is a team that starts Ben Wallace at center, with noted garbageman Chris Wilcox off the bench--but counters that with aggressive guard play. It worked tonight, against the reigning Defensive Player of the Year and one of the best defensive backups in the league. Saddled with foul trouble, Howard and Gortat combined for 12 points, 12 boards, and 12 fouls this evening. The Magic might as well have just cloned Roy Hibbert twice and played those versions at center, given those stats.
As for the Magic's game plan? Didn't see much of one. Howard's foul trouble prevented them from establishing him inside, which led to an offense that stood around and looked to create one-on-one. I understand Carter's ankle isn't at full strength, but he should have at least entertained the idea of taking the ball to the cup a few times. Instead, pull-up J after pull-up J, which elicited no shortage of pithy comments from Raptors and Nets fans, who long criticized him for settling for jumpers too often.
He's hardly the only player guilty of that crime tonight, though. Stuckey and Bynum soundly outplayed Nelson, at both ends, which is worrisome. As the only star on the floor in crunch time--Rashard Lewis is suspended, Howard's disqualified, and Carter's nursing a nagging injury--and as a team co-captain, he needed to demonstrate more poise down the stretch. Poor shot selection and consecutive turnovers effectively ended the Magic's comeback bid. The loss isn't squarely on his shoulders, as nobody really played well for the Magic. But he did not acquit himself with his 7-point, 6-assist, 5-turnover outing.
I know it's only one game, out of many, so I don't want to go into "the sky is falling!" mode. But the Magic should beat any team that's missing its top 2 players, especially when it holds a 30-0 advantage on points scored from three-point range. If the Magic don't shape up offensively in a hurry, they could find themselves in a bit of a rut. Unfortunately, they don't have much time to regroup after tonight's poor performance; they return to Orlando tonight for a game against the high-octane Phoenix Suns tomorrow.