The Orlando Magic flipped their own script against the Boston Celtics on Thursday night, rallying from a deficit that reached as many as 16 points to win by a 96-94 final due to a dominant 4th quarter. Rashard Lewis scored 23 points to lead Orlando, and made the winning basket with 1.3 remaining off a broken play that began with J.J. Redick scrambling to pass to Vince Carter 40 feet from the basket. Center Dwight Howard proved to be the real difference in the game for Orlando. On a night when it missed
18 of its 24 14 of its 20 three-point attempts, Orlando had no choice but to force-feed Howard in the post against the single-coverage of Kendrick Perkins, Rasheed Wallace, and Kevin Garnett. Howard, who has struggled to score against the Celtics, responded with an eye-popping array of finishing maneuvers. He shot 8-of-12 from the field and, to my recollection, did so without so much as attempting a dunk. Nothing came easy for Howard tonight, but it didn't matter: he still managed to put the ball in the cup. In any case, Orlando overcame a considerable deficit, at full strength, against a contending team, at home, while spotting its opponent 18 points from beyond the three-point arc. That's quite the victory.
|Green denotes a stat better than the team's season average;
red denotes a stat worse than the team's season average.
And here's where my sophisticated analysis comes in: the game really boiled down to the teams' ability to make shots. Boston hit almost everything it put up, no matter the situation. Hot shooting was about the only thing that put the Celtics up big. Ray Allen made each of his first 7 shots, for instance. Wallace, shooting 29.8% for the season on three-pointers, made his first 3 attempts from beyond the arc; fittingly, he airballed his game-winning attempt. Rajon Rondo, a career 24.3% three-point shooter, made one while falling into Orlando's bench as the shot-clock expired to stop a 7-0 Magic run. The Celtics' second quarter really sums up their entire game nicely: they made 5 three-pointers and a layup in the period, which accounted for their only points. Lots of treys, the infrequent foray inside, and very few foul shots for Boston, which fell into a trap that sometimes claims the Magic, namely the tendency to fall in love with the long ball.
Contrast that approach with Orlando's tonight, which was to work the ball inside to Howard, if for no other reason than the three-pointers just wouldn't fall. Lewis threw the Celtics a curve, so to speak, by voluntarily passing up the three-pointer in order to drive the ball against the gimpy Garnett. Lewis' willingness to put the ball on the floor, and ability to pull-up off the dribble without any hesitation, really boosted Orlando's offense tonight.
There are even bigger developments than that one from the Magic's perspective, however. Trailing by 11 points to start the 4th quarter, coach Stan Van Gundy elected to play Howard and his backup, Marcin Gortat, together, with Gortat manning the power forward slot. Ordinarily, this lineup is a disaster on offense due to both players' lack of range, which shrinks the defense. In a game in which Orlando needed to score quickly if it hoped to win, I questioned the wisdom of such a pairing. Boy, was I wrong. Gortat was content to stay out of the way on offense, which enabled the Magic to continue running post-ups for Howard on the left block. The Gortat/Howard tandem was key defensively in cleaning up point guard Jason Williams' frequent mistakes, namely his consistent yielding of driving lanes to Rondo, arguably the league's fastest player.
But there's another point: with the game on the line, Van Gundy called upon Williams, and not the starter Jameer Nelson, to run the show. Again, it proved to be a solid move. Williams hit two three-pointers in the fourth quarter, pushed the tempo when appropriate, and generally didn't screw up. Nelson didn't have a bad game by any means--his 10-point burst to bail out a flagging Magic offense in the first quarter looks pretty important in retrospect--but Williams was at the helm when Orlando made the game competitive again, and Van Gundy trusted him to keep it going. At times, notably with Lewis and Ryan Anderson, Van Gundy will go with the player with the better track record as opposed to the one actually playing better now, what
Eddy's magicfanintn's termed the "reputation vs. production" approach. Tonight, Van Gundy did something different by sticking with the veteran over the recent All-Star. Nelson did see the floor in the 4th quarter, but only to defend three-point marksman Eddie House on the Celtics' final possession.
Carter was also conspicuously absent for much of the 4th quarter, and apparently with good reason. When finally subbed in for the first time, he could not drive by the considerably slower, heavier Wallace, who managed to poke the ball away for a turnover. Rondo dove onto the ball and called timeout, which prompted the Amway Arena crowd to boo Carter. He finished with 6 points on 2-of-13 shooting, 4 rebounds, 2 assists, and 3 turnovers. The improved decision-making he displayed in last week's games must have been a mirage, because he didn't look like a very willing passer tonight. I estimate he missed Gortat on an open roll to the rim at least 3 times tonight, with each instead resulting in a contested, off-balance look for Carter. Another game to forget for Orlando's highest-paid player and nominal "go-to guy," who became a mere spectator as Orlando went to Howard and Lewis down the stretch.
Orlando's defense looked good tonight, too. Poor rotations and pick-and-roll defense helped the Celtics reverse the ball to an open three-point shooter in the first half, but for much of the second, that pick-and-roll defense tightened up. And the "roll"? Boston could forget about it. As Tom Haberstroh of Hoopdata.com pointed out on Twitter, the Celtics missed 12 of their 20 shots at the rim tonight, bumping their season total to 30 misses in 50 rim attempts versus the Magic. Nothing easy inside for the Celtics, due in large part to Howard and Gortat, who combined to tally 7 blocked shots.
For the rest of the season, I doubt we see Howard and Gortat play together very often, or Lewis at small forward. But those rotational tweaks worked tonight, a credit to Van Gundy and the players. For me, though, the biggest wrinkle tonight was Howard's ability to finish difficult shots against the stout Perkins. If the Magic can begin counting on Howard to create for himself down low, against elite defenders like Perkins, then they'll be in excellent shape for the next decade. Nevermind the rest of the season. With apologies to Lewis, Howard gets the game-ball tonight, with Gortat also earning kudos for playing Garnett, a future Hall-of-Famer, to a virtual draw.