Jameer Nelson scored 14 of his season-high 26 points in the fourth quarter, leading the Orlando Magic to a 116-110 win against the New York Knicks on Tuesday night. The Magic trailed by as many as 11 points in the second half, giving back an early 12-point lead in the second quarter as the Knicks rolled to a 37-15 edge in the period. But Quentin Richardson's defense on Carmelo Anthony took the Knicks out of their game, and for the rest of the game the foul line proved to be New York's only reliable source of offense. Dwight Howard had 30 points, 16 rebounds, and 5 blocks for Orlando, which got 44 points from its bench in a strong outing. Chauncey Billups and Amar'e Stoudemire poured in 30 apiece for the Knicks, while Anthony scored 25 on just 8-of-24 shooting.
As Magic coach Stan Van Gundy likes to say, the NBA is a make-or-miss league. In the first half, Orlando struggled from beyond the arc, missing three of their four three-point tries, which helps to explain their 11-point deficit. Once the Magic found their outside touch, though, they were in great shape, as Howard got almost whatever he wanted against New York's undersized defenders. But they needed more than just threes to work their way back into this game, which is where Richardson proved most helpful. He got the call due to Hedo Turkoglu's ejection in the second period and wound up playing 17 minutes, providing chest-to-chest defense against Anthony.
And yet his contributions show up elsewhere, too. Richardson shot 4-of-7 from the floor for 10 points, his first time scoring in double-figures since December 4th, while pulling in 5 rebounds. Credit him for staying ready even after falling out of Van Gundy's rotation. This sort of effort tonight is what Orlando envisioned when it signed him to a four-year contract in July.
|Green denotes a stat better than the team's season average;
red denotes a stat worse than the team's season average.
The less that's said about the Magic's second quarter, the better. New York shredded them in the period, as I pointed out, and had plenty of momentum at halftime. The Magic missed shots, the Knicks surged without Howard in the game, and took control.
Orlando's offense stirred to life in the third, with Nelson knifing through the lane for easy scores or to set up teammates; he's really at his best against teams like New York which don't have shot-blockers to deter his penetration or bother his finishes.
Richardson and Ryan Anderson set the tone for the Magic's comeback to continue early in the fourth at the offensive end. The two hit back-to-back threes, followed by a Richardson layup as he posted up the smaller Anthony Carter, and another three from Anderson to give Orlando a 90-88 lead. At this point, it became clear the Knicks simply don't have the defensive wherewithal to handle the Magic's offense, and the concern for Orlando became limiting the Knicks at the other end.
They did that to great effect, except when fouling, which proved to be often. The teams combined for 97 foul shots tonight, the highest single-game total in the NBA this season, as the officiating crew refused to "let the players play," so to speak. Billups did most of his damage here, baiting Nelson into silly fouls. But Magic fans can forgive Nelson for them: some of the calls were iffy--as were the some that'd later go against New York, I hasten to add--and Nelson scored 11 straight Orlando points later in the period with two layups, a long two-point jumper off the dribble, two foul shots, and a deep three in Billups' face. Those two always seem to enjoy going at one another, and both turned in brilliant performances because of it.
We learned a few things about the Magic tonight. First, and most importantly, is they stuck with it, displaying the sort of mental fortitude, engagement, and willingness to work hard that guided them to the NBA Finals in 2009 and a 33-8 finish to last season. It might've been easy for them to fold, and I imagine most Magic fans expected them to, following the disastrous second quarter. But they didn't.
Second, Richardson's still useful. He, not J.J. Redick, who didn't have such a bad game himself, earned the right to close the game out tonight for his defense and all-around tough play. In recent weeks, Van Gundy has given second-year combo forward Earl Clark the role of designated defender, but going with Richardson proved to be the right move here. He has the strength to tangle with Anthony, for one, but also has more to offer offensively than Clark. Clark's height advantage didn't pay dividends against Anthony early on, which to me indicates he's better suited to guard taller, more perimeter-oriented players like Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Durant than drivers like Anthony. Plus, Richardson has more to offer offensively than Clark.
Third, Chris Duhon came to life in relief of Gilbert Arenas, who missed the game due to a sore left knee. Duhon didn't play spectacularly, as he finished with 2 points and 5 assists in 14 minutes, and the Magic's offense became discombobulated with him on the court; I'm willing to attribute some of it to the lineups with which he played, but it was telling that, after Anthony intercepted an awful pass and took it the other way for a dunk, Orlando had Turkoglu initiate the offense, with Duhon cutting to the weak side and standing in the corner, from then on out.
With three straight strong performances, Orlando appears to be turning the proverbial corner in its season. Good timing: it faces a back-to-back against the Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls this Thursday and Friday, and is one week away from embarking on a five-game, seven-night road trip.