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Portland Trail Blazers 97, Orlando Magic 83

In a disheartening performance, the Orlando Magic dropped their third straight game Thursday night, 97-84, to the middling Portland Trail Blazers as they struggled on both ends of the court. Dwight Howard poured in a season-high 39 points and grabbed 15 rebounds, but none of his teammates apart from reserve shooting guard J.J. Redick (10 points in 25 minutes) really stepped up to give him much help, while Portland got a balanced effort from top to bottom. Point guard Andre Miller led it with 22 points and 8 assists, contributing 7 boards as well, with Orlando unable to contain him in the low post or on the perimeter, while Wesley Matthews filled the boxscore with 20 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, and 3 steals in 33 minutes. The Magic's starting wings of Jameer Nelson, Vince Carter, and Quentin Richardson combined to shoot 6-of-27 from the floor for 16 points against a Blazers defense determined to play Howard one-on-one in order to avoid opening things up for his perimeter teammates, a gameplan which worked to perfection. In managing 83 points tonight, Orlando extended its streak of games below 85 points to three games, the longest since coach Stan Van Gundy took the helm prior to the 2007/08 season.

Orlando led, 28-14, early in the second period, but the Blazers closed the game on an 83-56 run. Miller proved to be the catalyst overall, but as I said, credit has to go to his teammates for filling it up. Joel Przybilla and Marcus Camby combined to lock Howard down in the second half, for the most part, while new sixth-man Nicolas Batum contributed 15 points and 10 boards in 27 bench minutes.

Once it became clear that Portland intended to single-cover Howard if at all possible, and once Miller established himself as a threat to score or pass on the block, the game became the Trail Blazers' to lose. Howard cooled down as Przybilla and Camby pushed him further from the basket, Miller confounded Orlando's defense, and Orlando couldn't find anyone other than Howard who could generate offense. The loss is sure to raise questions about the Magic's status as a legitimate championship contender, given the relative ease with which Portland, a .500 team after tonight's win, dispatched them in front of a national audience.

Team Pace Efficiency eFG% FT Rate OReb% TO Rate
Magic 88 94.4 46.5% 23.9 15.0 18.2
Trail Blazers 89 109.4 47.5% 24.7 27.7 13.5
Green denotes a stat better than the team's season average;
red denotes a stat worse than the team's season average.

The Trail Blazers' plan here isn't new, and it's fair to wonder if more teams will adopt the Boston Celtics' strategy of letting Howard get his given the success Portland had tonight, and Boston had in last season's Eastern Conference Finals, will start to catch on even more now. A problem with running so many post-ups for Howard, as Kevin Pelton astutely observed tonight, is that it lowers his involvement in the high pick-and-roll, where he's exceptionally effective. And a point Van Gundy frequently makes is that the offense tends to stagnate when Howard pounds the ball into the floor with his back to the basket, with four teammates standing on the perimeter. Something has to give here: either Howard needs fewer post-up chances, or Orlando needs to make a concerted effort to move without the ball. The post-up, in single coverage, is too predictable a cover for opposing defenses, even if Howard converts.

And Miller's a guy Orlando's never really had an answer for, as his performance in the 2009 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals as a member of the Philadelphia 76ers shows. In that series, Miller averaged 21.2 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 6.3 assists, and Van Gundy has long held that Miller's one of the league's toughest covers at point guard due to his back-to-the basket skills. Leave your man on an island against him, and he can score inside. Send a help defender and he'll reverse the ball to the open man. Van Gundy and the Magic still need answers here, though perhaps finding them isn't a high priority, as Miller and Chauncey Billups, another similarly skilled big point guard, both reside in the Western Conference.

Perhaps it's tempting to write off the Magic's poor offense tonight as a fluke, as Nelson, Carter, and Richardson don't often have simultaneous bad shooting nights. I don't think it'd be accurate to ignore them as such, though, because the low percentage is a function of the sorts of shots they took, which weren't good and are due in large part to the shoddy offense Orlando ran. 14 assists for Orlando tonight, on 30 baskets, which is much higher than I expected. But ball movement and control are two things Van Gundy needs to address, as 16 Magic turnovers resulted in 24 Portland points tonight. The execution and crisp passing which helped carry Orlando to the NBA Finals in 2009 has eluded them of late.

The Magic tried to adjust in the second half by loading up the strong side when Miller worked on the perimeter, but their help rotations cost them easy baskets at the rim as Miller found the seams in Orlando's defense. After Howard, Miller was clearly the best player on the court this evening.

Orlando has myriad issues to work through after this loss, but they won't have much time to think: they'll lose an hour on their flight to Utah early this morning, and face the Jazz at 9 PM tomorrow in a very, very tough back-to-back set. As of right now, they're not due to practice or shootaround, which is understandable, given the travel itinerary. But if I know Van Gundy, he's itching to watch some film and make clear to his players, in specific detail, what all went wrong tonight and in their previous two outings.