Yesterday, John Schuhmann of NBA.com published this brilliant analysis of the Orlando Magic's strong play since the All-Star break, explaining how and why they are playing the best ball of any team in the league.
The Magic are 14-3 since the break, second only to the Bucks (15-3). But statistically, Orlando has been more dominant than anybody. The Magic have outscored their opponents by 14.8 points every 100 possessions over those 17 games. The next best team since the break has been the Phoenix Suns, who have been just 9.3 points better than their opponents.
The Magic have been terrific defensively since November. For the second straight season, they're the top defense in the league, allowing 99.7 points every 100 possessions, a hair less than the Celtics. But it's been on offense that they've taken off since the break.
Orlando's riding high!
But after last night's 86-84 loss to the Atlanta Hawks, in which Magic forward Rashard Lewis failed to box out Josh Smith on the final possession, resulting Smith's slamming in Joe Johnson's missed shot at the buzzer to defeat Orlando, things have taken a quick turn for the worse. Brian Schmitz of the Orlando Sentinel reports on the controversy in Orlando's locker room following the game:
"Unfortunately, we forgot to box out on the weak side, and Josh was able to make a great play. We became spectators and didn’t block out," [coach Stan Van Gundy] said.
Lewis privately muttered something about Van Gundy’s offense on a night he was 2-of-9 for six points. Matt Barnes was seething at the coach, too.
Van Gundy took out defensive specialist Barnes for a long stretch in the fourth period, trying to get the Magic back in the game with shooters, and Barnes took it as a personal affront.
"He obviously doesn’t trust me down the stretch," Barnes huffed.
Orlando's crashing and burning!
Schmitz seems not to mind the attitude, calling it "classic" and "typical of a title-contender after a bitter defeat." There's probably something to that mindset; will anyone think anything of this game during the postseason, for instance? But for the sake of discussion, let's examine the ways in which everyone in this story has solid reasoning on his side. Also, I've attached a poll to gauge fan reaction to this new development.
Lewis indeed shot 2-of-9 on a night when Orlando struggled to put the ball in the basket. Typically, Van Gundy will call several plays for Lewis, be they pick-and-pops or post-ups, to get him involved if he gets off to a slow start. But in last night's contest, those possessions seemed to go to center Dwight Howard, who never could quite work himself into a rhythm against a Hawks team that usually offers him little resistance. And clearly Van Gundy has every right to be ticked at Lewis, whose blown box-out assignment cost Orlando a chance to win for the second time this season.
Barnes? With Mickael Pietrus re-injuring his sprained left ankle, he's the Magic's best available perimeter defender. But Van Gundy indeed pulled him for much of the fourth quarter in order to get more offense into the lineup, as Orlando attempted to stage a comeback. Van Gundy went with three-point specialist and underrated playmaker J.J. Redick at shooting guard, which shifted Vince Carter to Barnes' usual small forward slot. Thanks largely to Smith's presence around the rim, neither Redick nor Carter had much success individually, but Orlando nonetheless climbed back into the game. When Van Gundy did summon Barnes for his defense in the final minute--on several offense/defense substitutions with Redick--Barnes didn't contribute much, though he didn't really hurt the team, either. Carter wound up having to defend Johnson, Atlanta's go-to offensive player, for parts of the fourth quarter and struggled to do so without fouling, though he did give an honest effort.
I don't believe Van Gundy's decision to go with Redick has anything to do with not trusting Barnes, who's usually part of the Magic's finishing unit. But in this instance, Orlando's defense wasn't an issue. It was a plus, really, and the Hawks helped the Magic out by grinding everything to a halt and playing one-on-one in the fourth period. Barnes' gripe seems to be that he's just as reliable on offense as Redick is late in games. Redick shot 1-of-7 for 5 points last night and had 2 of his shots blocked, the most of any Magic player. In his defense, he's the Magic's leading three-point shooter this season. But then again, Barnes cashed in 4 of his 8 shots, including 2 of his 4 trey attempts. And he's shooting a sizzling 46.3% from long range since the All-Star break, compared to Redick's 33.3%. Barnes probably didn't have those exact figures in mind when he made those comments, but they nonetheless support his idea that he might have merited more fourth-quarter playing time.
Everyone's right and makes solid points here. And in writing this post and starting this discussion here, I've probably spent more time thinking about it than anyone actually involved will. Again, such is the nature of professional sports. We could forget it all as soon as tomorrow night, when the Magic host the Minnesota Timberwolves.