Team-wide outside shooting and Dwight Howard's interior dominance helped the Orlando Magic build a 20-point lead over the Indiana Pacers after the first quarter, which Indiana couldn't surmount despite its best effort in the second half. Howard scored a season-high 32 points and tied a career-high with 24 free-throw attempts as the Pacers employed coach Jim O'Brien's favored "Hack-a-Howard" strategy; Howard sank 16 of those 24 attempts. Matt Barnes contributed another outstanding overall game with 10 points, a career-best 16 rebounds, and 6 assists. Jason Williams proved indispensible off Orlando's bench in relief of a foul-plagued Jameer Nelson, scoring 14 points, dishing 9 assists, and bringing energy to a Magic team that's looked lax of late. Orlando had no answer for Danny Granger (25 points on 19 shots) or Dahntay Jones (17 points on 8 shots off the bench), who led Indiana's comeback. Howard made good on his promise to shut down Pacers center Roy Hibbert, who lit him up for a then-career-best 26 points in the previous meeting between these teams. Hibbert missed both of his shot attempts and scored just 3 points in 18 minutes.
|Green denotes a stat better than the team's season average;
red denotes a stat worse than the team's season average.
Orlando won this game solely on the strength of its first quarter, in which it dominated both ends of the floor. By my unofficial count, the Magic scored on 11 of their final 13 possessions of the period, and one of those empty trips was the final possession of the quarter, where they had to go the length of the floor in 1.7 seconds. The phrase "scoring at will" immediately comes to mind. Crisp ball movement really drove that first-period offensive onslaught, as did Indiana's turnovers and missed shots. Orlando aggressively pushed the tempo and saw results.
What it didn't do, at least not as consistently as one might have hoped, was deliver the ball to Howard inside. Yes, Howard scored 32 points, but 11 of those came as the direct result of his own offensive rebound, with Indiana either fouling him for free throws or, far less frequently, his being able to go back up with the ball immediately. It's not all bad, though, as the Magic got free throws or a layup out of each of Howard's offensive boards. Still, against teams that don't believe in giving intentional fouls, Howard won't have huge scoring nights like this one.
But maybe that's okay. Even without Howard, Orlando's offense hummed right along. The Magic weren't afraid to make the extra pass tonight, and we saw far fewer attempts to go one-on-one this evening. Even Vince Carte, roundly criticized for dominating the ball for most of the season, tallied 5 assists and looked like a much more willing passer than he had in recent games. Now, obviously, one can't record an assist without a teammate making a basket, so using that statistic alone to evaluate a player's proficiency as a passer is flawed in some ways. And yes, he forced a few off-balance shots in traffic when he could have kicked the ball out. But again, on the whole, he showed signs of improving offensively tonight, even if he missed 6 of his 8 shots and scored just 6 points. It's just been that sort of season for Carter, and it's probably telling that his lone made baskets (an in-rhythm three-pointer, and an alley-oop slam from Williams in transition) were assisted as opposed to created off the dribble.
Also noteworthy, from a playmaking standpoint? Mickael Pietrus, who averages one assist every 43 minutes, matched a season-high with 3 tonight, in just 13 minutes. In his 7-year career, it's the fastest he's ever recorded at least 3 assists. Try that fact at your next party You'll kill.
What's still worrisome for the Magic is that they once again fell into the trap of shooting quick jump shots with a big lead. The Pacers started thee 4th quarter on a 14-2 run which eerily recalled the 15-0 run the L.A. Lakers went on to start their 4th quarter against the Magic on Monday. By my count, the Magic shot 7 jumpers, took one shot in the paint, and committed 4 turnovers during Indiana's spurt. Fortunately, the Magic's hot-shooting first half--they made 9 treys in the first two periods, comapred to just 1 after halftime--helped them build a large enough lead. Were some of those same looks to fall off or rim out, as they did for most of the Magic's 1-3 West Coast road trip, Orlando might be shaking its head after yet another loss to a far inferior team.
The turnovers might be the most pressing issue. The Pacers don't force many, but poin guard Earl Watson managed to match a career-high with 6 steals, and the Pacers finished with 11 on the night. After accounting for two shot-clock violations, it's clear that Orlando shot itself in the foot several times tonight, with 13 of its 21 turnovers unforced: 3 bad passes out of bounds, 2 offensive fouls, 1 pass muffed out of bounds, 1 traveling violation, and 1 three-second violation. At least there's some variety.
But again, there's some progress. Shooting wasn't the only thing Orlando did well tonight, as it dominated the boards by a 50-35 margin, which limited Indiana's chances. Indeed, the Magic's frontline of Barnes, Lewis, and Howard (33 boards) nearly outrebounded the entire Pacers team. Howard created opportunities for himself with his offensive rebounding, and even on the possessions where he never touched the ball, his teammates were actively looking for him down low. Williams and Pietrus brought energy from the bench. I mean, it wasn't the perfect effort you might have expected after a dominant first quarter in which Orlando doubled-up Indiana, 40-20, but it's still a start. To what is it a start, exactly? It could be an 8-game winning streak, it could be another string of underwhelming performances. We don't know, at all, with this Magic team. But we do know that it's played well, for long stretches, in each of its last 2 games. That's an indication, however small, of improvement.