After a lackluster first half in which they missed nearly two-thirds of their shots and scored only 41 points, the Orlando Magic erupted in the third and fourth quarters for 76 points, finally trouncing the Milwaukee Bucks by a 117-92 margin. Shooting guard Vince Carter and backup point guard Jason Williams sparked the Magic's emphatic second-half run, combining to score 21 of the team's 38 third-quarter points. Williams' hot streak continued into the 4th when he drained three more three-pointers, bringing his season-high total to 5. They had help offensively, with a foul-plagued Dwight Howard adding 17 points, Mickael Pietrus scoring 16 off the bench, and Matt Barnes--who replaced Pietrus in the starting lineup because coach Stan Van Gundy was "concerned with the way we start games [because] we never jump on anybody"--putting up 10, including a long two-pointer at the third-quarter buzzer that sent the Amway Arena crowd into a frenzy. Bucks point guard Brandon Jennings scored 20 points, but took 19 shots, and no Buck attempted more than 3 free throws as Orlando kept its hands to itself and Milwaukee kept launching jumpers.The Magic set a new franchise record with 78.4% shooting in the second half.
|Green denotes a stat better than the team's season average;
red denotes a stat worse than the team's season average.
The buzz in the media workroom at halftime was that the Magic were lucky not to face a 20-point deficit. Between their poor shooting and sloppy ballhandling, they scored 41 points on 50 possessions. Fortunately for them, the Bucks didn't exactly shoot the lights out either. Center Andrew Bogut took advantage of Howard and his backup, Marcin Gortat, to score 13 points, but the Bucks' inability to draw fouls and lack of a true go-to scorer kept the Magic's hope alive entering the final 24 minutes.
Orlando's biggest culprit in a forgettable first half was Jameer Nelson, who missed all 6 of his shots and committed a turnover, although on the positive side he did add 3 assists. In his 5th game back in the lineup, Nelson still hasn't knocked off the rust that accumulated when he missed 5 weeks in order to recover from surgery on his left knee. Complicating the issue, Van Gundy said, was that his knee swelled up after Orlando's Christmas Day loss to Boston, which limited Nelson "to 30 minutes of live basetball" in the days since, according to Van Gundy. Further, Nelson had a family situation last night that caused him to miss some sleep, which sapped his energy. Interestingly, Van Gundy didn't hear about the family issue until after tonight's game and said he'll distribute the point guard minutes between Nelson and Williams on a "night-to-night" basis.
Orlando primarily did its damage in the third quarter from the three most efficient locations on the floor: in the paint, from beyond the arc, and on the foul line. The final tally? 18 points in the paint on 9-of-11 shooting, 3-of-3 from three-point range, and 3-of-4 from the stripe. Carter repeatedly drove the lane in order to initiate the offense, while the Magic gave Howard a few possessions to make something happen in the post. He did, scoring 7 points in the period and showcasing soft touch on Bogut and his backup, Kurt Thomas, both known as stout defenders. If you wanted to see how the Magic's offense would operate in an ideal world, you lucked out if you happened to catch the third, because it ran beautifully. Great ball movement and player movement, crisp passes, good decision-making. Of course, when shots fall, the things that led to their creation tend to look better, so perhaps my take is a bit skewed. What's yours?
The shooting also erased some defensive lapses, as Milwaukee sank 5 three-pointers in the period itself to answer Orlando's volleys. But once Williams replaced Nelson at the 4:17 mark, the Magic closed out the quarter on a 16-7 run to turn a 4-point deficit into a 5-point lead. Incidentally, Williams entered after a timeout generated when Bucks forward Ersan Ilyasova lowered his shoulder to Carter's face on the left sideline trying to draw a charge on Carter, who was bringing the ball up. Carter, as is his wont, lay crashed in a heap for several minutes "to let everything get back together," he said. He joked that "everything was lined up correctly" after that, and "the basket looked straight." Carter did not come out of the game and scored 4 more points in the period, and then assisted on a drive-and-dish to Barnes on the baseline right as Thomas shoved Gortat into him; Barnes converted acrobatically, then barked for a foul, which was amusing because Gortat was the guy who made contact with him. As previously mentioned, he hit a long jumper to beat the third-quarter buzzer, which was his way of responding to the Bucks. I wanted to ask Barnes more about that play, but he ducked out of the locker room before I had the chance to. Whoops.
Orlando led by 5 and had momentum going in to the 4th, but the game's outcome was far from certain... until the Bucks proved helpless to stop its offense yet again. Pietrus and Williams combined for 3 three-pointers on the Magic's first 5 possessions, and Williams hit Gortat on the move in transition for an old-fashioned three-point play which pushed Orlando's lead to 15 with 8:19 remaining, effectively ending the Bucks' comeback bid. Credit the Magic for forcing the Bucks to take some questionable shots throughout this period, but also credit Milwaukee for remarkable effort; it grabbed 7 offensive rebounds in 14 chances during the 4th, which delayed the Magic from taking control as quickly as they probably would have liked.
Van Gundy's flip-flopping of roles between Barnes and Pietrus was not his only shift of the night. He also tabbed Brandon Bass as his backup power forward, which resulted in Ryan Anderson earning just his 2nd DNP-Coach's Decision of the year. Van Gundy explained that Bass was the player best equipped to defend Hakim Warrick, the Bucks' energetic backup four-man who scored 16 points in 22 minutes the last time these teams met, a come-from-behind win for Orlando. "Warrick had given us a lot of problems with his quickness the last game," he said, "and I thought Brandon was our best matchup on him." According to Van Gundy, if everyone stays professional and prepared, "what our roster does--and the flexibility we have--is allow us to handle situations like that and have somebody for virtually every situation." Van Gundy said that the new rotation "won't do a whole lot to [the players'] minutes, necessarily" and that he "was just trying to change who they play with a little bit."
That's the takeaway on the court. Off it, I thought the crowd--the 32nd straight sellout, according to the Magic--brought a real playoff atmosphere. Just before tipoff as some stragglers still worked to fill in the seats, Zach McCann of Orlando Magic Daily and I wondered how a Wednesday night game against a sub-.500 team in December could draw a sellout, and if the attendance figures were accurate. But the third quarter, when the packed house seemed to blow the roof off after every big Magic play--and the ovation for the Williams three-pointer that gave Orlando its first lead since early in the first quarter was the loudest I've heard since the NBA Finals--made apparent our skepticism's unfoundedness. Several times the crowd spontaneously burst into chants of "DE-FENSE!" which is rare in the era of piped-in noise and JumboTron cheering prompts. It was a pleasant surprise, much like the Magic's rally itself.
As you can see in the photo above, I brought a photographer, Bruce Maddox, to the game tonight. Bruce took some spectacular photos, which I will post separately tomorrow. I'm looking forward to it, as should you.