Entering a game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the team with the league's best record, the Orlando Magic's bench had a tough enough task. The fact they had to provide enough support for the starters just two days after scoring a mere 6 points on 3-of-19 shooting in a loss added to the problem. But Orlando's bench indeed delivered against Cleveland, and proved instrumental in the Magic's win. Coach Stan Van Gundy was right when he said, "we got a lot more out of our bench today."
To be clear, Orlando's stars still carried it to victory. Jameer Nelson and Vince Carter scored 8 points apiece during the decisive 16-3 run Orlando made in the fourth quarter, while Rashard Lewis sank some timely baskets and Dwight Howard anchored the defense while saddling the Cavs' big men with fouls. But prior to the Nelson/Carter outburst, it was Orlando's bench keeping it afloat, with J.J. Redick and Brandon Bass scoring the Magic's only 6 points of the period prior to Nelson's and Carter's respective heroics, and defensively the reserves didn't let Cleveland get much separation.
It all began in the first half with Mickael Pietrus, one of the chief offenders in the loss to Dallas, against which he missed all 5 of his three-point attempts, many of them early in possessions. Orlando's wildest player, Pietrus dialed his manic energy down several notches and played a more focused game, scoring 8 of Orlando's 24 second-period points, and 13 overall. A patient Pietrus sank 5 of his 6 attempts and waited for scoring opportunities to come his way, rather than pursuing them recklessly. He got in the scoring column with a steal and fast-break slam after immediately dishing to Carter, who gave the ball back up for Pietrus to finish; ordinarily, I'd expect Pietrus to try taking the ball himself, which is a risky proposition, given his poor ballhandling skills. He sank a three-pointer moments later off a drive-and-kick feed from Lewis, then sprinted back to reject Delonte West from behind on the Cavs' next possession. And he was opportunistic at the end of the third quarter when Bass' long jumper fell off the right side of the rim and into his lap, and he alertly put up a shot to beat the buzzer and cut Cleveland's lead to a single point. All told, he contributed 13 points in 16 minutes, on 6 shooting possessions, while guarding LeBron James, the best player in the world. It was, in short, an outstanding performance from Pietrus.
But one could make a case that J.J. Redick proved to be more value. He made one of the finest, most aggressive plays of his career when he challenged Shaquille O'Neal, the Cavs' behemoth of a center, on a drive, which resulted in O'Neal picking up his fifth personal foul by swatting Redick to the floor with two hands. "I just wanted him to make a decision," Redick said of the play. "He typically, when he matches up with Dwight, he favors Dwight, so I wanted to get in the paint and make him make a decision. And his decision was to hammer me [....] there was a moment there where I really thought my life was hanging in the balance." He broke down the play further, saying his choices were to shoot a runner before encountering O'Neal or to drive straight at him. "I felt like if I shot a runner and missed it, he wasn't going to try to block that, he was just going to stay on Dwight and he would have had rebounding position," Redick said, "So I wanted him to have to commit to me." Redick's awareness, and the clinical way he assessed the play after the fact, reminded me of something Van Gundy said about him after a 20-point outing against Utah in a win last December: "He's on top of everything."
Perhaps Redick and Pietrus' solid nights were to be expected. Redick is more consistent this season than he has been in years past, and Pietrus played quite well against the Cavs in last year's playoffs. Bass didn't stuff the stat sheet against Cleveland, with 6 points in 11 minutes, but he did contribute. And considering that he had not played meaningful minutes since a 10-minute stretch against New Orleans two weeks ago, that's a solid achievement. Bass' struggles to fit in with Orlando since signing a four-year deal with it last summer are well documented, and scads of evidence show that Ryan Anderson is a better option at power forward behind Lewis. However, Van Gundy trusted Bass more when Cleveland went with a physical lineup featuring the 6'09" James at shooting guard, with J.J Hickson, Antawn Jamison, and Anderson Varejao on the front line. The off-ball defense issue that Bass has battled all year did not manifest itself against Cleveland. He stuck with his man and generally knew where he needed to be. Offensively, he looked a bit tentative, perhaps as a product of not seeing much playing time in the last several months. At the 1:19 mark of the first quarter, he missed his first shot attempt, a 16-foot jumper on the left baseline, one of his sweet spots. He had an open look, but waited too long to shoot, which gave Varejao enough time to recover, set his feet, and eventually contest Bass' offering. He was less hesitant on his second shot, a shorter jumper that he sank to a huge ovation from the crowd.
Bass told me the hardest part about not receiving consistent playing time is "getting in a rhythm with the team during the game, because games are different than practice." When asked about the personnel Cleveland had on the floor when Van Gundy called on him, Bass smiled and said, "That's cool. That's great. If you want to go small with me out there, that's great." Though Bass has struggled to carve a spot in Van Gundy's rotation, it's becoming clear that Van Gundy trusts him more against the league's more athletic, complementary power forwards, such as Hickson, Toronto's Amir Johnson, and Chicago's Hakim Warrick. Anderson still figures to see most of the backup minutes, given his longer range and superior rebounding skill, but Bass proved useful last night. Perhaps former Magic forward and current NBA TV analyst Dennis Scott was onto something when he said Van Gundy will rely more on Bass, who has playoff experience with Dallas, in the postseason.
Orlando still has a long way to go to catch Cleveland in the standings, and Magic players including Redick, Lewis, and Nelson all mentioned that even after their win, the Cavs are atop the league. That's not in doubt. But for Orlando to have a puncher's chance against the Cavs in the playoffs--if it even comes to that--it will have to get consistent, quality minutes from its second unit in order to boost the starters. That's what happened yesterday, and is one of the reasons why, as John Hollinger put it, "we can again engage in a healthy debate as to the eventual identity of this year's Eastern Conference champ".