The Philadelphia 76ers dealt the Orlando Magic's hopes of advancing in the playoffs a huge blow on Friday night, holding off an impressive Magic rally to win the game, 96-94, taking a 2-1 series lead. Dwight Howard tied the game with two free throws with 6.9 seconds left, but Thaddeus Young's layup with 2.2 seconds to play--after dropping the ball, recovering it, and nearly having it stripped by Howard--was the difference. The Magic had no timeouts remaining and Rashard Lewis' heave from three-quarters court was well off the mark. Orlando must win three of the next four games to keep its season alive.
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I sent roughly 90 Tweets in this game, so you can check this site's Twitter page for my running commentary. As you'll see when you read the Tweets, and in my halftime update here, Orlando got off to a simply horrid start. Dwight Howard was the only Magic player with a pulse, but nobody played any defense for Orlando in the first half, as evidenced by the Sixers' 60 points in the first 24 minutes. The second half got off to a rough start and it appeared as though Philly was going to run away with this game as it boosted its lead to 17 points.
Then Orlando came charging.
The defense tightened up, the offense looked crisper, and the Magic looked poised to seize control of the game. Unfortunately, the hole they dug for themselves proved to be too deep for them to overcome. After a Rashard Lewis three-pointer tied the game at 86, the Magic stopped executing on offense. Going to Dwight Howard is what got them back in the game, but for the next 3:20, he hardly touched the ball and did not take a single shot. This stretch, during which Orlando should have taken the lead, may have proven to be its undoing in the second half. The Sixers took advantage of Orlando's lack of focus, scoring the game's next 6 points to almost put the game out of reach.
For the first time in the series, Orlando got its three-pointers to fall, connecting on 8 in 20 attempts. Clearly, it didn't matter. The Sixers continued their strategy of single-covering Howard in order to account for Orlando's riflemen. The strategy nearly backfired, as the Magic were able to get the best looks of the series tonight, while Howard continued to light up the Sixers' interior defense. And the few times the Sixers did send help, they were able to disrupt Howard on his way to the hoop by poking the ball away or making him shuffle his feet. Overall it's hard to complain about what any Magic player did offensively, save for Hedo Turkoglu. But we'll get to him shortly.
Defense cost the Magic this game. Sure, they held Philadelphia to 36 second-half points, but it didn't matter in the end. The easy looks they yielded to the Sixers in the first half--especially at the end, when Philly got four layups to close out the half--were ultimately the difference. Andre Iguodala was simply unconscious in the second half with several difficult, contested, high-arcing jumpers which nonetheless found the bottom of the net. I'm no psychologist, so make of this what you will, but I believe the easy looks he got in the first half boosted his confidence in the second. The Magic were more-or-less able to put the clamps on him late, even forcing him to throw the ball away on a key fourth-quarter possession after a quick double-team flummoxed him. But by and large he was Philadelphia's best player. Again.
Which brings us back to Turkoglu, whom Iguodala guarded for most of the night. Turk had his worst game of his already dismal series, missing 10 of his 12 shots and committing a game-high 5 turnovers. He was out-of-control and seemed more focused on drawing contact on his drives than on actually getting a decent look. With 1:02 to play and Orlando trailing by 3, he had an open lane to the basket and would have had an easy two, but he contorted his body trying to create contact with Sam Dalembert. Sammy evaded the contact, rebounded the ball, and put the Sixers in position to put the game away. Turk then committed a silly foul on Iguodala, who missed two potentially game-icing free throws. Bullet dodged... except it happened again.
On the Magic's next possession, Turk again barreled into the lane and appeared to have an open look until Dalembert came from the weak-side to cleanly reject the shot. I understand and appreciate Turk's desire to get to the cup and possibly draw a foul--it's better than his launching contested jumpers--but he needs to play more within himself if Orlando is to have a chance to win. The fact that Orlando fared much better with Mickael Pietrus (6 points, 2-of-4 from the field, 1 block) in his place only emphasizes the extent to which Hedo hurt Orlando tonight.
If there's any positive to take away from this game for the Magic, it's that they played exceptionally for most of the second half, and were able to put points on the board with--take note, national analysts--Howard as the go-to guy. They also got some wide-open three-point looks, and managed to connect on 40% of them. They're bound to put together a great game from tip-to-horn eventually, right? Of course, we've said that every day for the last week, and it still hasn't happened. About the only thing we do know is the Magic have to play their hearts out on Sunday. Their season is on the line.
Three games. Two losses on well-defended, last-second buckets. A +5 differential overall despite not shooting well in any game. It's proven to be one heckuva series.