The Orlando Magic were unable to overcome their worst three-point shooting effort of the season and what appeared to be a severe shoulder injury to All-Star point guard Jameer Nelson as they lost to the Dallas Mavericks, 105-95, in what we may look back on as a turning point in Orlando's season. Dwight Howard had 35 points (13-of-19 from the field, 9-of-12 at the line) and 11 boards, but he was the only Magic player to distinguish himself offensively. Hedo Turkoglu managed 18 points, but missed 8 of his 12 shots and 2 late free throws that might have kept the Magic in the game. Defensively, Rashard Lewis gave Dirk Nowitzki all he could handle, but it didn't matter; Nowitzki hit several of the whirling, off-balance jump shots that have become his signature on his way to scoring 29 points, while Jason Terry scored 23 off Dallas' bench. And although he committed a game-high 5 turnovers, Jason Kidd gave the Magic fits with 8 assists and 4 steals.
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With 6:52 to play in the first quarter, Jameer Nelson pushed the ball in Orlando's transition offense and headed toward the left wing. Hedo Turkoglu sprinted to the top of the three-point arc, where Nelson delivered a spot-on pass. Turkoglu swished the three-pointer to tie the game at 11, prompting Mavs coach Rick Carlisle to call timeout. It appeared as though Orlando was on its way to a good night, having scored the game's last 7 points.
The Magic then went the next 39:59 of the game without making a three-pointer in 14 attempts. They made 2 of their last 5 to finish the game 3-of-20.
That fact gets its own paragraph for emphasis. Maybe it wouldn't have been so bad if the Magic were able to get any defensive stops, but they weren't. Their defense, particularly Dwight Howard's, was simply awful tonight. One second-quarter sequence illustrates his struggles perfectly. With 1:31 to play in the first half, Kidd ran a pick-and-roll with Erick Dampier. Howard failed to adequately pressure Kidd, leaving the surefire Hall-of-Famer who ranks 5th on the all-time assists leaderboard a large passing lane. Kidd bounced it through to Dampier for an easy layup. Magic coach Stan Van Gundy called timeout after that blown play, but it didn't help. On the next possession, Kidd and Dampier once again ran a pick-and-roll. Nobody rotated to guard Dampier at the rim, allowing Kidd to lob the ball over the top of the defense for an emphatic alley-oop slam. When Erick Dampier is throwing it down like it's 2000, you're in for a rough night. When he's setting screens that dislocate your All-Star point guard's shoulder, you may be in for a rough month or so. More on Nelson's injury in a second.
Lewis worked hard on Nowitzki, but the effort may have taken its toll on his offensive game. He went 1-for-7 on three pointers to finish with 12 points. Courtney Lee, the rookie shooting guard praised for his defense, had all kinds of trouble sticking with Jason Terry. Mickael Pietrus didn't fare much better. Just an all-around bad night for the Magic's defense. And offense, for that matter.
Which makes the game's outcome all the more frustrating. After missing fairly uncontested shots from the perimeter for most of the game, the Magic finally woke up and drove the ball to the basket in the 4th quarter, trimming what had been a 20-point Mavs lead to 9 on a few occasions thanks to 14-of-19 shooting at the foul line. They made up for their poor three-point shooting by converting three and-one opportunities in the fourth, too. On the one hand, you want to commend them for working so hard to claw back into the game; on the other, you want to scream yourself hoarse at them for allowing the game to get out-of-hand in the first place. The hustle still wasn't enough to compensate for poor defense, a lack of ball movement, and poor outside shooting. Dwight Howard can't carry an offense by himself.
The good news is that the Magic won't have many nights like this one as long as everyone's healthy. The bad news is that not everyone is healthy. Jameer Nelson's dislocated shoulder appears to be quite serious and could even force him to miss the All-Star game on February 15th. John Denton says Jameer "could be out an extended period of time," while Brian Schmitz says the injury is "serious." We won't know the extent of the injury until a bit later, but suffice it to say that we're going to see a lot more of Anthony Johnson in the coming weeks. He's the team's only healthy point guard, leaving Lee and Turkoglu to handle the back-up chores. Orlando went 4-1 with Johnson starting for Nelson earlier this season, but the victories were against Philadelphia, Washington, Indiana, and Minnesota; the loss was to Boston. The Magic have a relatively light schedule this month--only games against Denver, New Orleans, Miami, Detroit, and resurgent Philadelphia loom particularly large--but still cannot be expected to win at an .800 clip with Johnson playing heavy minutes. Fortunately, they still have a nine-game advantage on Atlanta, a ten-game advantage on Miami, and a ten-and-a-half-game advantage on Detroit for the East's third seed. They'll almost certainly fail to keep pace with Boston and Cleveland, but at least they've distanced themselves far enough from the field in the season's first half to (probably) weather the storm during Nelson's absence.
Nelson's injury comes a scant 16 days before the trading deadline, which will certainly fuel speculation that the Magic may make a deal for another point guard. Last week, ESPN.com's Chad Ford did a story highlighting the ten best available point guards. Go ahead and fire up the trade machine if you're so inclined.
I've rambled long enough. It's been a rough night.