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Tonight's Game: San Antonio Spurs at Orlando Magic

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Note: it's getting close to game time, so I'm bumping this post back to the top of the main page. - BQR

2008/2009 NBA Regular Season
San Antonio Spurs main logo
@
Orlando Magic main logo
15-9 19-6
December 18th, 2008
Amway Arena
8:00 PM
TNT
Probable starters:
Tony Parker PG Jameer Nelson
Roger Mason Jr. SG Keith Bogans
Michael Finley SF Hedo Turkoglu
Matt Bonner PF Rashard Lewis
Tim Duncan C Dwight Howard

UPDATE: Dwight Howard will play tonight. Just to get it out of the way: Dwight Howard isn't sure if he'll play for the Orlando Magic tonight against the San Antonio Spurs. He sat out the Magic's last two games--both victories--due to a sore left knee. An MRI yesterday revealed inflammation. If he's unavailable, Magic coach Stan Van Gundy will have to decide if he'll continue to start second-year pro Marcin Gortat in Howard's place, or if he'll instead use twelve-year pro Tony Battie to contend with Tim Duncan, the Spurs' surefire Hall-of-Fame center.

I really want to proclaim tonight's matchup between the Magic and the Spurs the biggest one of Orlando's season so far, its greatest test. But I won't, because the other three games on this long homestand also loom large. The Magic, who are fresh off a five-game Western road trip, have to battle the Spurs tonight, the Lakers on Saturday, the Warriors next Monday, and the Hornets on Christmas Day. Three of those four opponents are legitimate title contenders, and the other one is dreadful, yet unpredictable and certainly capable of pulling off an upset. So the pressure for Orlando is only just beginning to mount. The Magic's 4-1 showing on that trip turned a few heads, and they appear to be the consensus fourth-best team in the NBA behind the otherworldly Celtics, Cavaliers, and Lakers. Now is the time for Orlando to make its case for inclusion in that group.

But the Magic, for their part, are hardly in the same make-or-break mindset. Anthony Johnson isn't, anyway, according to this Associated Press report posted on the New York Times' website (brackets mine):

"I don't think these two games [against the Spurs tonight and the Lakers on Sunday] cement us as pretenders or contenders," Johnson said. "Nothing matters in December, January, February. No matter what goes down in these two games, we still have a lot of work ahead of us."

Van Gundy echoes that sentiment:

"The cautionary thing is that in this league, things change overnight. What you've done in the first 25 games doesn't mean anything in the 26th game, or 27th game. You just have to be ready."

If that refrains sounds familiar, it's because a certain silver-and-black-clad NBA team also subscribes to it. Graydon Gordian of 48 Minutes of Hell, a Spurs blog, wrote these words yesterday prior to the Spurs' duel with the New Orleans Hornets last night:

A founding tenet of Spurs dogma is the principle that regular season games should only be seen as a preparatory exercise for a deep post-season run. For the team's emotions to wax and wain too heavily with each rivalry game is to allow us to lose sight of the fact that the wins that truly count come in May and June.

Indeed, the Magic could certainly pick a worse philosophy to emulate.

More thoughts on the game after the jump.

The Spurs have a modest record relative to their own lofty standards. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili missed time with nagging injuries, but Tim Duncan and the Spurs' role players, especially rookie combo guard George Hill and veteran free-agent signee Roger Mason Jr., were able to keep San Antonio afloat in their absence. Ginobili and Parker are back, but that didn't help the Spurs in their game against the Hornets last night. San Antonio missed more than its fair share of wide-open three-pointers, and Tyson Chandler kept Duncan in check (16 points on 5-of-14 shooting), as the Hornets rallied in the fourth quarter--the only quarter in which they outscored the Spurs--to defeat the team that's come the closest to attaining dynastic status since the Lakers teams of the early aughts.

While the matchup between Howard and Duncan, should be fun to watch if Howard's able to play, I believe most significant and compelling individual matchup will be at point guard. Parker and Jameer Nelson are similarly quick, but play completely different offensive games. Parker uses his quickness to get to the rim, finish, and draw fouls; he also draws defenses away from the Spurs' shooters. In contrast, Nelson prefers to do his damage by pulling for jumpers off the pick-and-roll with Howard, or by spotting up and waiting for a Hedo Turkoglu dish to come his way. The team that wins the point guard matchup will probably win the game.

I'm especially curious to see what Rashard Lewis does tonight. Usually, he's able to exploit mismatches against opposing power forwards, who are loathe to chase him out on the perimeter. However, the man who will likely draw Lewis' assignment tonight, Matt Bonner, is similarly perimeter-oriented and will thus not be as flustered as the defenders Lewis usually draws. Hopefully, Rashard will be able to use his superior quickness--Bonner has no chance of beating him in a footrace--to get to the basket. I suspect there won't be many open three-pointers tonight for Rashard.

To accommodate TNT, the tip's at 8 PM, one hour later than usual for home games. Additionally, the game won't be available on any of the local networks. Despite the appeal of this game, Turner will send its B-Squad of announcers: Kevin Harlan and Doug Collins have the call for this matchup, while Marv Albert, Reggie Miller, and Mike Fratello will call the later Suns/Blazers game. Freaking bummer, man.

Maybe the broadcast/basketball gods will make it up to us by willing Orlando to victory. Go Magic. Yay.