Due in large part to Chris Paul's brilliance, the Orlando Magic suffered their worst loss of the season, 117-85, to the New Orleans Hornets. Paul, the Hornets' franchise point guard, orchestrated a nearly flawless offense, finishing with 36 points on 14-of-22 shooting to go with 10 assists, and only one turnover. Six Hornets scored in double figures; meanwhile, the Magic shot 37.1% from the field. Rashard Lewis scored 17 points, and Dwight Howard added 12, but had only 2 after the first period. The Hornets were able to shut-down Howard by fouling him whenever he touched the ball, staying at home on Orlando's perimeter shooters.
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Unbelievably, the Magic, who missed 14 of 15 shots during one first-half stretch, pulled to within 9 points on Rashard Lewis' three-point play three minutes into the second half; the Magic appeared to be within striking distance. Paul did more than close the door on the Magic's comeback bid. He slammed it, boarded it up with plywood, and poured cement over it. Over the next 5:32, New Orleans went on a 20-5 surge, lead by Paul's 7 points and 3 assists. All told, Paul accounted for 14 points during the run, while the Magic mustered a single field goal and three free throws. CP3--this young man has earned a better nickname--got into the lane at will against Anthony Johnson and Tyronn Lue, and although rookie guard Courtney Lee did an admirable job staying in front of him, Paul drew other defenders with him, and was thus able to find open cutters under the rim for the easy basket. I daresay nobody in the league will beat the Hornets when their offense is humming like it did tonight.
Clearly, the Magic aren't going to struggle to win games from here on in. Stan Van Gundy is a brilliant coach, but his team's offense is in the tank without its All-Star point guard. Once Jameer Nelson returns next season--yes, he wants to return sooner, but there's no reason to believe GM Otis Smith will let him risk his health--the Magic will be in position to make a championship run. For now, they're perhaps slightly better than the 2006/2007 team that went 40-42 and got swept in the first round of the playoffs. The degree to which Howard and Hedo Turkoglu have improved during that time-span, the addition of All-Star forward Rashard Lewis, and the huge upgrade in coaching from Brian Hill to Van Gundy, attests to the value Nelson has to this team. Or, if you're more cynical, it attests to just how awful Johnson is.
We hope to delve into the Magic's recent struggles later this week. However, tomorrow is the trading deadline, so we'll keep the forum open.