The Orlando Magic rallied from a 23-point deficit against the Miami Heat Thursday night and had a chance to tie the game with less than 10 seconds remaining, but Ryan Anderson's three-pointer from the top of the arc bounced off and the Heat escaped with a 104-100 win following a Dwyane Wade free throw. LeBron James scored a season-high 51 points to go with 11 rebounds and 8 assists for the Heat, who took a 2-1 edge over Orlando in the season series and now have a 5-game edge in the loss column. Jameer Nelson scored 22 points and dished 6 assists to lead the Magic, including 11 points in the final period as the Magic went on a three-pointer barrage to work themselves back into the game. Dwight Howard put in 17 points and 16 rebounds, but left 10 points at the foul line in a crucial game. Six Magic players scored in double-figures, but it simply wasn't enough against an on-fire James, who made his first 11 shots, and his cast of role-players who filled in when and where needed.
Even when Orlando trailed by 23, I didn't think it played a bad game; the Heat's big lead, to me, said more about their own ceiling with James and his mates on fire than it did about the Magic's effort and engagement on either end. The message of Miami's season, it would seem, is that it doesn't give its opponents much room for error. One bad stretch of play against the Heat and opponents are effectively toast, and Orlando saw that dynamic in effect this evening when it missed 10 straight field goals in a period spanning the second and third quarters, during which time Miami expanded its lead from 6 points to 12.
It's not as though James knifed up the Magic with a series of drives to the rim; no, he made a killing tonight draining long two-point jumpers, scoring 29 points in the first half without a single three-pointer. When James is on like that, about the only thing other teams can do is pray to whichever higher power they believe in. A bigger problem for Orlando was an inability to limit the Heat's other players. Wade and Chris Bosh, Miami's other All-Stars, combined for 27 points on 8-of-24 shooting, so they weren't a huge issue tonight; of greater concern was Orlando's failure, on some occasions, to account for Eddie House and James Jones, the Heat's designated three-point snipers. That duo made 3 of its 7 three-point baskets for 15 points.
|Green denotes a stat better than the team's season average;
red denotes a stat worse than the team's season average.
And how large do the quick buckets Miami scored to end the second and third quarters loom now? Bosh ended the first half with a quick dump-off to Erick Dampier under the goal, and the veteran center--who more than pulled his weight defending Howard in the post at the other end--flipped the ball in just before time expired, giving the Heat a 55-45 edge at intermission. And at the end of the third, House scooped up a missed foul shot by Howard and advanced the ball to James, who jumped as if to shoot a pull-up three, only to send a bullet of a pass to Joel Anthony at the rim for a dunk. Those are but two of the Heat's 36 baskets tonight, but their context certainly makes them appear to have greater importance than most others.
If you're a Magic fan, really, I don't think it's fair to rip into the team following this loss. They kept their turnovers down, attacked the offensive glass, and forced the league's best finisher to take 19 of his 25 shots outside the painted area. On most nights, that's a recipe for an Orlando victory against this Heat team, particularly with Nelson pouring in 22 and Jason Richardson scoring 16 points with four three-pointers.
A bigger problem came at the offensive end. Orlando will continue to struggle against Miami's defense, which boasts, in Wade and James, two wing players who wreak havoc with weak-side help and s bevy of underrated low-post defenders. Creating good shots is an issue, but the Magic did better tonight than they did on October 29th, when they shot 30.4 percent from the floor and tallied only 5 assists on 21 baskets. Even if their initial looks weren't always great, Orlando made a concerted effort to crash the offensive boards, managing to set themselves up for other opportunities. That's important, and we shouldn't overlook that aspect of their performance tonight.
Overall, we learned tonight Miami's nearly impossible to beat when James pops off like this, that the Magic's offense will have trouble with the Heat's defense. and Orlando has enough three-point firepower to erase big deficits in a hurry. What are the surprises there? There really shouldn't be any, which is why I actually feel okay about the Magic tonight. They're a flawed team, to be sure, but this wasn't one of their worst performances of the season, as some folks on Twitter or elsewhere on these here internets might have you believe. A solid effort, mostly good execution--especially with regard to defending James--against a tough foe. About the only other thing you could ask for is a win, and the Magic were right there at the end of the game, in spite of James' otherworldly performance and their earlier offensive droughts.
I never think of myself as a homer, and I believe I've established a reputation as a pretty reasonable dude, so please don't think of me as looking through this game with blue-and-white-tinted glasses. The Magic probably can't beat Miami in a seven-game playoff series, at least not if it were held today. Yet 32 games remain in the regular season, plenty more time for the revamped Magic, just over a month together with their new crew, to jell a bit. My advice? Relax, friends.