Orlando had completed a 19-point comeback in Phoenix on the final night of a four-game, six-day road trip. The defense needed to get a stop in order for the Magic to have a chance to win the game. Steve Nash penetrated the lane, scissoring through defenders as he always does and found Jared Dudley in the corner for three.
Dwight Howard partially blocked Dudley’s attempt, but Rashard Lewis could not corral the rebound and Amar’e Stoudemire grabbed the board and glided through several Magic defenders desperately trying to force him to the free throw line. But Stoudemire got through them all and jammed the ball in for a three-point lead.
Rashard Lewis missed a 3-pointer and the Magic could not get a good look after two jump balls after the rebound as the Suns escaped with a 106-103 victory.
Orlando came out very flat and could have easily folded in this one, especially after last night’s struggles against the Jazz. The Magic fell behind by 19 points in the second quarter and committed eight of their 21 turnovers in the first quarter. Nash got into the lane and really made Orlando make tough decisions on defense. He does this to pretty much every defense, but everything was just slow. It looked like the team was playing on the second night of a back to back and ready to go home.
But the Magic did not quit. In a tell-tale third quarter, Orlando hit six 3-pointers and were right back in the game with a chance to win it. As with most Magic comebacks, everything started and ended with Dwight Howard.
Howard had one of the most bizarre good games in history. He was officially credited with one field goal — a dunk he made early in the game. And that was it. But Howard made some very good decisions in the paint and really decimated Phoenix’s defense, helping Orlando make its way back into the game.
Dwight finished with 10 points and 18 rebounds. He worked hard on the glass on both ends of the court. More importantly, each one of his post looks resulted in something positive. Howard had only two assists, but plenty of hockey assists (especially to Mickael Pietrus who dominated the third quarter on his way to 23 points). If he was not passing out of double teams to open shooters (who then passed the ball to another open shooter) he was making an aggressive move to the basket and picking up the foul.
Howard hit eight of his first 11 free throws, but missed the last six he took. Stan Van Gundy said after the game he went away from Howard because of the missed free throws. It definitely showed as the team struggled to execute down the stretch. Vince Carter’s absence also hurt as Carter tweaked his knee early in the third quarter and did not return.
Orlando’s struggles were evident as Anthony Johnson was the go-to guy. It was not a horrible thing. Johnson finished with 11 points, more or less all in the fourth quarter, and his strength made Steve Nash work on defense. Johnson got to the basket and made some shots. But he finished four of 10 from the field and I think most Magic fans would agree, even those who defend Johnson, he is not the first option late in the game on the road.
It would have been nice to see Howard get some touches, but Van Gundy clearly did not feel he was going to reverse his poor free throw shooting at that point. Johnson had a critical turnover with the Magic down one when he dribbled the ball off Pietrus’ leg on the fast break. That led to Stoudemire’s big possession and the Suns closing this one out.
It was a strange game in that sense as the team fought its way back to make this a close game on the last night of a long road trip. But Orlando did not have enough to pull out in the end. With Carter and Jameer Nelson out, Orlando did not really have anyone to go to in crunch time. It certainly feels like the end would have been very different with even Carter in.
Splitting the four games on the road trip is not ideal and there was plenty the Magic left on the floor on this trip. But now they do not have to leave the state for the rest of 2009. There are plenty of wins to be had and plenty of things to correct during this next stretch.