The Orlando Magic could not create open shots at the offensive end Sunday afternoon against the Boston Celtics, dropping an ugly game, 91-80, as a result. The Magic shot 34.4 percent from the field and 12.5 percent on three-pointers, with Boston's defenders routinely taking away the Magic's top options in any given set, forcing the Magic to settle for low-percentage jumpers. Center Dwight Howard cooled after a hot start, finishing with a game-high 28 points on 10-of-20 shooting, but his only field goal in the second half, an open dunk, came in the game's final minute, with the outcome not in doubt and Boston not trying to play defense.
At the other end, All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo asserted himself like he rarely has, a decision that paid off in a big way. Rondo scored a season-high 26 points, attempted a season-high 9 foul shots, and also tied season-bests with one three-pointer in two attempts. Orlando made the right call in trying to turn Rondo, among the league's best passers, into a scorer, instead trying to take away fellow All-Stars Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett. In theory, that's a sound strategy, and one I'm sure a lot of other coaches around the league might try.
In practice, though, it failed, because if Rondo managed to get by his man, Orlando's help defenders were too slow to react, conceding layups to Rondo or freeing one of his teammates for an open shot. The idea is to turn Rondo into a jump-shooter, and while he did convert some of those today, he still got to the rim with too much ease. Pierce did an admirable job filling in for Boston with Rondo on the bench, earning 12 free throws himself to keep Boston's offense alive.
|Green denotes a stat better than the team's season average;
red denotes a stat worse than the team's season average.
The real issue here for Orlando isn't the defense, though. Offense, even after the two trades in December ostensibly meant to improve the Magic's firepower, is. Orlando's perimeter players--which is to say everyone except Howard, Ryan Anderson, and Earl Clark--shot 13-of-63 (20.6 percent) from the floor for 32 points. Jason Richardson and Hedo Turkoglu, the top shot-creators from that trade, went 5-of-21 for 14 points, and were on a 3-of-19, 9-point pace until two late hoops from Richardson.
If the only reliable offense Orlando can muster against good teams comes from Howard backing his man down, the Magic are in serious trouble, now and in the future. The pace-adjusted efficiency stats the new-look Magic have put up indicate their offense has improved, but the problem is, even with the new personnel, Orlando struggles to get shots against good defenses. It's a problem we saw on the second night of the season, with Rashard Lewis and Vince Carter laying bricks against the Miami Heat, and it's still a problem now.
Additionally, the Magic don't deliver Howard the ball often enough, particularly when trailing. I don't know what's to blame here--Howard's for not demanding it, his teammates' for not getting it to him, something else, the position of the freaking moon--but it's something they need to address, in a hurry, before losing any more ground in the Eastern Conference. Orlando is 8 games behind Boston in the loss column, so catching it is already out of the question, and trails Miami by 6 and the Chicago Bulls by 5. The Magic should not be playing catch-up with a mediocre Atlanta Hawks team, which has a two-game edge, in early February, even accounting for the adjustment period following the trades and the injury to Brandon Bass. The team is not playing to its potential, in my estimation, but if it is? If this is the Magic's ceiling? You can count it out of the championship hunt, certainly, and begin scouting prospects for the 2013 NBA Draft Lottery.
When Howard did get the ball, at least in the opening minutes, he looked well on his way to a 50-point outing. He shook Kendrick Perkins easily in the low post with spins, jabs, and all manner of fakes, and showed good touch on his jump hooks. He scored 10 of Orlando's first 12 points to give it a solid 12-2 lead in a dead-quiet TD Garden. That was the Magic's high-water mark on the day. Once the Celtics stopped turning the ball over--they had 7 miscues to just 4 field goals in the opening quarter--the Magic were essentially helpless.
I'm sure we'll see a lot more panicked and/or angry FanPosts and comments here after this loss. Fine. Fire away, but keep it clean and express your disagreements respectfully, as always. I am in no mood.