Orlando Magic 97, Houston Rockets 88: Rashard Lewis' Offensive Brilliance the Highlight in Orlando's Preseason Opener

Paced by a balanced and versatile, if not entirely accurate, offensive attack, the Orlando Magic dealt the host Houston Rockets a 97-88 defeat at State Farm Arena in Hidalgo, Texas to kick off their 2010/11 preseason schedule. In just 27 minutes, Dwight Howard led all players with 19 points, 12 rebounds, and 3 blocked shots. He displayed improved patience and feel in the low post against former nemesis Yao Ming, who used to bottle him up with ease thanks to his freakish, 7-foot-6 frame. Vince Carter added 14 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, and 3 steals. More interestingly, Rashard Lewis scored an efficient 12 points on 5-of-6 shooting, doing most of his damage as a post-up small forward rather than a floor-stretching power forward. As one might expect, Yao looked sluggish in his first game since 2009. In just over 12 minutes, he tallied 3 points, 3 rebounds, an assist, and 2 turnovers, which included him stumbling on his own feet for a travel after driving by Howard for what should have been an open layup.

Team Pace Efficiency eFG% FT Rate OReb% TO Rate
Magic 94 103.5 53.2% 16.5 15.0 19.2
Rockets 93 94.3 42.1% 31.6 23.9 20.4
Green denotes a stat better than the team's 2009/10 average;
red denotes a stat worse than the team's 2009/10 average.

The advanced stats table above paints rather a bleak picture as far as the Magic are concerned, but there are indeed positives to take from this game, chiefly Lewis' ability to take over a game offensively at small forward. An aggressive, involved Lewis shifted to the three for portions of the second and third quarters and baffled Rockets defenders with his array of post moves, including a reverse-pivot to the inside on noted defensive ace Shane Battier for a layup in traffic. As feathery as his turnaround jumper was tonight, though, there's still cause for concern. Lewis is clearly not entirely comfortable defending small forward, having spent the last three seasons heavily at power forward. Chase Budinger managed to hang two fairly easy jumpers on him, but more damningly, the unathletic Battier managed to drive right by him on one second-quarter possession. Fortunately for Lewis, Battier short-rimmed the layup. Defense is a work in progress, sure, but the offense comes easily to him at that position. And the Magic worked intently to get him the ball, which is another good sign after a season in which he often was relegated to fourth-option duty.

Lewis wasn't the only Magic wing to get opportunities in the post, though, a point which the Orlando telecast team of David Steele and Matt Guokas made sure to note. Carter and Quentin Richardson also showcased their post skills, adding another dimension to the Magic's offense. Last year, Carter didn't get many post touches, while Matt Barnes and Mickael Pietrus simply don't have a low-post component to their games. Richardson's size and strength are assets here, as is Carter's quickness and ability to finish with either hand inside. When he spun Battier around in the post on one first-half possession, he ran into a solid rotation from a help defender, possibly Jordan Hill. Yet Carter contorted his body and converted the tough layup left-handed. This development is certainly one to monitor going forward. Getting post offense from players other than Howard is a plus.

Increased post-ups in general mean even more opportunities for inside-out basketball. The Magic got 22 assists on their 38 buckets, an impressive number for a team that gets much of its offense in isolation and at the foul line. The ball movement in the second quarter particularly impressed me, with even Brandon Bass and Pietrus making the extra pass for scores in this period.

Howard, for his part, was no slouch. Tonight, he struck the right balance of aggressiveness and patience in the low post; the word "deliberate" comes to mind. Rather than mindlessly try to back Yao down in the post, as he had in the past, he instead turned, faced, and beat Yao to the cup with his speed. On one occasion, Yao managed to cut off the baseline, but Howard scooted past him and sank a pretty lefty reverse layup in traffic, plus the foul. Oh, and he made two bank shots from the left side. So, yeah. Progress.

Orlando didn't have much luck from the outside in this game, nor did it manage to get to the line at an acceptable rate. Fouling, too, is a concern; the Rockets' combination of attacking shooting guards Kevin Martin and Courtney Lee combined for 13 free-throw attempts and 26 points overall. But it's hard to complain too much about the Magic's defense on a night when they limited Houston to sub-40 percent shooting and forced 19 turnovers.

Bass, lost in the shuffle on Orlando's bench last season, showed that he can be a useful player as long as he knows where to be. I didn't notice any instances of his teammates needing to correct his position, on either end of the floor. While he committed 3 turnovers and only snared 3 rebounds in 18 minutes--that's a poor rate for a power forward--he seemed more effective in general than last year due to improved awareness. I like the idea of him as a sort of floater/safety valve on offense, filling the sort of role Barnes did for last year's team, with the added bonus of being far more lethal as a jump-shooter than Barnes. His best bucket came from he right elbow extended in the first half. With his defender sagging too far off him to cover Howard off the ball, Bass was wide-open in his sweet spot when J.J. Redick found him off a high screen-and-roll driving from his left. He canned the jumper without hesitation. On the night, he finished with 6 points on 3-of-5 shooting.

Carter's performance was a little uneven--the 3 turnovers stand out on the stat sheet, given his usually solid handle--but he, too, showed improvement. The work he did on his body this summer was evident, as he was visibly trimmer and seemed to move more fluidly than in the past. His open-court strip of Martin as he elevated for a layup was particularly impressive. Vintage, even. I'd prefer to see him shelve the contested jumpers off the bounce, particularly when it's Battier doing the contesting, though.

Reserve center Marcin Gortat quietly chipped in 10 points in 21 minutes. He reached double-figure scoring precisely twice last year. His great hands, and the lack of attention opposing defenses afford him, make him an excellent target on the move. Carter found him late in the game for a thunderous, two-handed lob dunk which put an exclamation mark, of sorts, on Orlando's win.

Richardson got the nod as the starting small forward and performed about as advertised. Though his shot eluded him--he finished 2-of-6 from the floor--he proved to be an excellent rebounder, grabbing 7 boards in 17 minutes.

Backup point guard Chris Duhon, the team's other free-agent signee, didn't make much of an impression. He shot 2-of-5 from the floor for 4 points and added 2 assists and 1 turnover. He indeed has the look of an intelligent pick-and-roll runner, and his hustle will win the admiration of the coaching staff. After a rather curious Redick turnover, Duhon sprinted back down the floor and drew the Magic's first charge of the year.

It's worthwhile to note that, however encouraging the results of this game are, they still represent 48 minutes of an 82-game season, 48 minutes that won't amount to anything in the standings. But I think Orlando ought to feel good about its first preseason effort.

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