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Orlando Magic 100, Washington Wizards 99

The Orlando Magic held on to escape the Washington Wizards, 100-99, Saturday night, with Dwight Howard's putback at the 4.3 mark of the final period proving to be the difference. Gilbert Arenas rushed his game-winning attempt, a floater just inside the key over Mickael Pietrus, which drew nothing but glass as time expired, giving the Magic their seventh win in their last eight games. Howard led all scorers with 32 points and also pulled down a team-best 11 boards, but Orlando just barely eked out the victory due to some pretty inspired play from Washington, which played without top overall draft choice John Wall, its best player. Arenas put up 31 points in a vintage performance--he shot 14 free throws, his best showing in that area since December 2009 against the Golden State Warriors--while Nick Young punished Orlando off the dribble in an eight-minute, 16-second stretch spanning the third and fourth quarters, in which he scored 19 of his 21 points.

Orlando built an early lead on the strength of Howard's work inside and Quentin Richardson's three-point shooting, but as Fox Sports Florida sideline reporter Dante Marchitelli noted, coach Stan Van Gundy saw bad signs in his team's performance early even as it held a 30-20 edge after the first 12 minutes. According to Marchitelli, Van Gundy asked his team "Why don't you just tell me to my face you don't care?" between the first and second periods, clearly irritated with his team's poor effort and energy, particularly on the backboards. Washington grabbed 13 of the first 16 available rebounds in the game and consistently showed it was a step quicker to loose balls. That trend held up, and Washington finished with a commanding 47-38 victory on the boards.

The Magic were playing on the second night of a back-to-back and, without Vince Carter, lack the sort of game-on-the-line scoring presence who can generate offense in tough spots. I get that. But Washington, without Wall, outplayed them in a lot of areas for most of the night. This team will once again finish near the bottom half of the standings and lacks talent. It should not take a Howard putback on essentially a broken play for this Orlando team to pull out a victory.

Team Pace Efficiency eFG% FT Rate OReb% TO Rate
Magic 87 114.9 51.3% 25.6 24.4 14.9
Wizards 86 115.1 49.4% 25.0 36.4 15.1
Green denotes a stat better than the team's season average;
red denotes a stat worse than the team's season average.

But maybe that view is too pessimistic. After all, Washington had a 5-2 home record coming into tonight's game, as well as a day off following a Thanksgiving Day road loss to the Atlanta Hawks. Addionally, the Magic won despie trailing by 6, on the road, with less than 6 minutes to play. But they also led by as many as 13 points in the first half, and the Wizards hadn't played a good team nearly this well, at least not until tonight.

I didn't find myself enamored with the Magic's gameplan, but maybe that speaks more to the Wizards' focus on defense than anything else. This team doesn't do much well on that end, and Howard still hung 32 on them. But the Wizards at least made him work for those points. The Magic got a bit stagnant watching Howard pound the ball into the floor with his back to the basket, often in single-coverage, as coach Flip Saunders firmly discourages double-teaming. He had success defending Howard in this way during his days helming the Detroit Pistons, though that team had better low-post defenders. The Magic scored an efficient 100 points, but few of them came easily.

I think JaVale McGee did a solid enough job covering Howard, but he made a pretty critical error on the Magic's penultimate basket. As Jameer Nelson drove the lane from the left side, looking for an opening, he found Howard on the right block. McGee had stepped in Nelson's direction to discourage a shot--and Nelson is proficient with those turnarounds in the lane--but was still well positioned against Howard once he caught the ball. Howard turned and banked in a hook off the glass, giving the Magic a 98-97 lead with 26.2 seconds to play. Even with five fouls, McGee ought to have wrapped him up immediately instead of letting him ease into one of his pet shots. That's a higher-percentage play.

Orlando's defense was woeful for the third straight game, or second straight, if you feel the San Antonio Spurs' hot shooting had more to do with their win ovver Orlando on Monday night than poor defense did. Arenas shot 9-of-23 from the floor, a function of his typically iffy selection, but Orlando failed time and again to keep him out of the paint, which explains the aforementioned high free-throw total. And Young went bananas off the dribble. He's a talented scorer, and J.J. Redick can only do so much with his so-called "negative" wingspan--at 6-foot-4, he measures 6-foot-2 from fingertip to fingertip--but the Magic can't continue to let small two-guards of his ilk get those sorts of pull-up looks with which they're comfortable without a harder contest.

It says a lot about this game that Van Gundy had to be reactive with his defense late in the game, pulling Richardson, his team's hottest outside shooter and best defender in the starting lineup, for Chris Duhon. With Duhon on him, Arenas nailed two jumpers in the final 75 seconds, which explains why he instead went with Pietrus on the decisive possession. It's not entirely Duhon's fault that Arenas made those shots, though he did run straight into a screen to free Arenas for the first one, but had the Magic lost, Van Gundy would have come under fire, I believe, for pulling Richardson.

With this Magic team so far, we've seen a somewhat disquieting pattern of taking mediocre-at-best opponents lightly and letting them perform unusually well in areas like rebounding and defense, which are typically associated with effort and engagement. This problem is hardly unique to Orlando, but it's still one that needs correcting before too much longer.