The Orlando Magic dropped their 6th game in their last 11 outings, 100-97, against the Memphis Grizzlies on Monday night, unable to stop point guard Michael Conley from imposing his will on the game. The fourth-year pro put up 26 points, 11 assists, and 2 steals, including the game-saving strip of Orlando's Ryan Anderson, in the finest all-around performance of his undistinguished career. Six Magic players scored in double-figures, with Dwight Howard's 25 leading the way, per usual, but Orlando's poor all-around defense, lack of ball control, and shoddy marksmanship from three-point range did it in.
Gilbert Arenas, who closed the game out at point guard for Orlando instead of Jameer Nelson, helped spark a comeback in the early parts of the fourth quarter to make the game competitive. He drove to the basket for a layup in traffic to cut Memphis' lead to 12 at the 10:37 mark of the fourth, and on the next possession, again headed into heavy traffic, this time dumping the ball off to Howard for an easy jam. Posting up Conley on the Magic's next trip, Arenas turned, faced, and fired in a short jumper. All told, Orlando scored 10 straight points in just 3:11 to draw to within 2 at the 7:26 mark following another Arenas jumper.
But given the way the Magic opened the game, it would've been hard to imagine it coming down to an Arenas-fueled rally in the final period. The Magic made 12 of their first 14 shots, and both their three-point looks, to jump out to a 27-15 lead, pretty firmly in command. The rest of the way, though, the Magic went 24-of-62 (38.7 percent) from the floor and 6-of-30 (20 percent) on three-pointers.
|Green denotes a stat better than the team's season average;
red denotes a stat worse than the team's season average.
Let's get back to that strange finish. With the Magic in the bonus, Conley bumped Hedo Turkoglu in the backcourt after Conley lost his handle for a turnover, putting Turkoglu at the line. He drilled both free throws to tie the game at 96 with 2:15 to play. Marc Gasol countered for Memphis with a driving dunk off an out-of-bounds play to give it a lead it never relinquished.
Sure, the Magic had chances. But Arenas split a pair of free throws with 39 seconds to play, leaving the Magic one point short of Memphis. Conley missed an open jumper on the ensuing possession, Howard rebounded, and the Magic advanced the ball without calling for time, looking to keep the Grizzlies off balance. Arenas created an open three for Turkoglu, which he barely missed, Anderson hauled in the offensive rebound, but Conley snuck in from the top to take the ball away. Anderson fouled him, sending him to the line for two shots with a chance to boost the lead to three.
And then Howard picked up a senseless technical foul, arguing I'm not sure what, giving the Grizzlies another point. Zach Randolph made the technical free throw, but Conley missed one of his two shots. Jason Richardson's leaning, whirling, off-balance triple at the horn clanked harmlessly off the rim, and Orlando's comeback bid failed.
Maybe there's a tendency to shrug this loss off. The Magic, on the second night of a back-to-back; against a quality, rested opponent at home; without key reserve J.J. Redick; lost a one-possession game. I don't see that point of view. Sure, Redick would have helped tonight. Maybe another day off would have, too. But Orlando can't give up 64.2 percent shooting in the first half, or make a mediocre point guard look like Chris Paul, and then make excuses for itself.
To be clear, I'm not saying the Magic are making excuses; my message is more toward the fans of the team who might be inclined to just say "eh" and look forward to Thursday's marquee matchup with the Miami Heat. Right now, the Magic are playing middling basketball. They do not look championship-caliber on either end, a sentiment coach Stan Van Gundy expressed to the media after the loss.
Another concern for Orlando: Brandon Bass left the game for good in the third quarter after spraining his left ankle. Though x-rays were negative, Bass is one-third of the Magic's nightly rotation of big men, with Howard and Anderson the only other bigs to get regular action. Bass is a gamer and will play through pain, and I'm hardly a doctor--nor do I play one on the internet--but I don't get the impression he'll be able to play Thursday. Bass injured himself after making a jumper, his sixth basket in seven attempts on the night, and his foot may have come down on that of another player. The replays were inconclusive.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about this loss? Orlando could have won this game with a little bit more effort. Its play in the second and third quarters, during which the Grizzles scored almost at will and outscored it, 65-46, left a lot to be desired. On offense, the Magic couldn't beat the Grizzlies' simple two-three zone defense, and instead resorted to making one or two passes around the horn before launching a three. Defensively, the Magic didn't rotate well enough on Memphis' ball-reversals, particularly after double-teams, leaving shooters open on the weak side for open deuces. To a degree, it's a matter of normally poor outside shooters like Darrell Arthur and Sam Young canning jumpers, and when you think about the percentages, you'd rather have one of those two cast from 18 feet than Randolph or Gasol floating in jump hooks. But when you let teams get into rhythms like that, you're going to get beat.
The bottom line here, and for the rest of the season, is that the Magic can't sleepwalk for two periods and expect to win anyway. Their defense of late has proven it doesn't have the same dominant, night-to-night consistency to weather the storm when the shots don't fall. It's something the team can correct, as the playoffs are more than two months away, but even the staunchest Orlando supporters would admit their team is underachieving now.
I give Memphis a lot of credit for playing hard and executing in this one. Sure, the Grizzlies went cold for a spell spanning the third and fourth quarters, leaving the door open for a Magic comeback, but for 38 minutes or so, they were the better team. Conley's hot night takes some of the spotlight away from his teammates, who also did an admirable job. Gasol shot 9-of-11 from the floor for 19 points, Randolph grabbed 11 rebounds, Tony Allen tallied 6 points and 4 assists while playing energetic defense, and Arthur scored 14 off the bench. Great, great effort and execution on the hosts' part, which I'd be remiss not to acknowledge before concluding.
Turkoglu, the Magic's canary in the coal mine, shot 3-of-11 from the field and missed all 3 of his two-point tries. He defended Rudy Gay reasonably well, save for a Gay blowby for a jam late in the game, but he has to be more aggressive looking for his own shot.