Paced by Dwight Howard's quiet-seeming 24-point, 24-rebound, 2-block effort, the Orlando Magic defeated the Philadelphia 76ers, 91-78, to take a 3-2 series lead in the NBA's Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. Rashard Lewis scored 13 of his 24 points in the final period to help Orlando, and it wasn't just from perimeter jump-shooting. Orlando shot just 43.4% from the field and 34.8% from three-point range, but grabbed an astonishing 15 offensive rebounds, thus mitigating their poor shooting. Howard accounted for 10 of those boards himself. Andre Iguodala led the Sixers' attack with a game-high 26 points on 7-of-17 shooting, but he and Willie Green were the only Sixers to assert themselves offensively. Orlando's halfcourt defense--perhaps boosted by the officials' liberal interpretation of the three-second violation rule as it pertains to Howard, as Sixers coach Tony DiLeo suggested after the game--stifled Philadelphia's offense for the second consecutive game.
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Tonight, the Magic gave their best front-to-back effort in any game this series, and arguably since their huge walloping of the Cavs last month. And even if you won't concede that, you'll surely concede that tonight the Magic at least resembled the same team that won 59 games in the regular season. Obviously tonight's game was closer than the Cleveland one, but even when Philadelphia cut what had been a 14-point lead to 6-points with 3:11 to play, Orlando still seemed fully in-control. There was a very mild "oh no, not again" vibe in Amway Arena, but the Sixers had not played consistently well enough to pose a serious threat to the Magic. After a timeout, Orlando got two points after Samuel Dalembert goaltended an Anthony Johnson layup attempt; Howard rejected Andre Miller's layup attempt on Philly's possession; and the Magic rebounded. They missed three consecutive jumpers on their next possession, but offensive rebounds saved them. Lewis bailed the team out with his final field-goal with a flip shot in the lane. That basket gave Orlando a 10-point lead with only 2:02 to play. Thanks to the missed shots and subsequent offensive rebounds, 39 crucial seconds elapsed between Miller's miss and Lewis' make. Obviously, the Sixers could have used those seconds to mount another comeback attempt.
But Sixers coach Tony DiLeo was not as concerned with his team's inability to grab a defensive board in that sequence as he was with the officiating:
"They hurt us on the boards a little bit tonight [note: Orlando held a 45-33 edge on the glass]. But we battled, we battled. Dwight Howard had a great game and he's a great player, but he just lives in the three-second lane on offense and defense. It's tough to defend him or it's tough to just get to the hole when he's just standing in the three-second lane the whole time."
For his part, Howard doesn't think he's doing anything illegal. He scoffed at the notion that he benefitted from any three-second non-calls. When asked about it during the post-game press conference, he shook his head incredulously and said the following:
"An advantage? The series is tied 2-2; I don't think there's an advantage to me being in the paint the whole series. I've been doing the same thing the whole series. And I'm not going to complain about anything."
After the game, Howard and Lewis downplayed the significance of the team's not crossing the 100-point threshold since the game against Cleveland. Howard, regarding his team's offense:
"We can't really focus on scoring 100 points [....] Our main focus right now is to get back on defense."
Lewis agreed, saying the following when asked about the keys to Game 6:
"The defense will be very key [....] we have to get back, rebound, and defend."
For the most part, Orlando did those things well tonight:
Fast break points allowed: 12
Rebounding: Magic 45, 76ers 33
Defense: 95.1 points allowed per 100 possessions
One gets the impression that if the Magic play with the same intensity level Thursday night as they did tonight, they'll punch their tickets to the second round shortly.
However, they may not have the services of Howard or Courtney Lee. Howard deliberately elbowed Dalembert early in the game, earning a technical foul, and there's currently a well-reasoned debate that the league will suspend him for Game 6. Lee was another victim of Howard's elbows, catching one in the face as Howard came over for an attempted shot-block. Coach Stan Van Gundy:
He's getting another CAT scan and we will not know until after that.
Van Gundy added that he does not know who he'll start in Lee's place if Lee is unavailable for Game 6, and even if he did, he would not tell the media.