Orlando was up 18 in the third quarter. Jameer Nelson was boldly attacking the basket and either finding his teammates for open jumpers or Dwight Howard for easy baskets. Howard too was doing his part in setting up with good post position and converting off of whoever New Orleans sent his way (whether it was Emeka Okafor, David West or Aaron Gray).
Sure, David West was scoring every point for the Hornets but the way he was scoring seemed to indicate the Magic would have no problem wrapping up the undermanned home team in this one.
What happened next was simply puzzling — if not predictable when looking back at Orlando this season.
New Orleans got scrappy and outworked Orlando with some hard-nosed defense as the Magic got careless with the ball and committed some unforced turnovers. The Hornets patiently cut into the Magic’s lead and eventually ran past a dumbfounded Magic team for a 100-93 win Friday night in New Orleans.
There is not really a better place to begin than the numbers:
The Magic had seven turnovers at halftime and committed six in the third quarter alone (most after building an 18-point lead and seeming hitting cruise control). They finished with 18 in the game.
Jameer Nelson exemplified what was both good and bad in this one. He finished the night with 19 points on 9-of-14 shooting and dished out 11 assists. But after turning the ball over just once in the first half, he finished the game with five.
New Orleans outscored Orlando 28-13 in the fourth quarter. And that is begin kind to the Magic. They had just six points with about two and a half minutes to play in the period. Not the way any team wants to end the game.
To make matters worse, Orlando could not rely on its usual stable of 3-point shooting to climb back into this one and stop the bleeding. The team shot seven for 27 from beyond the arc. Vince Carter and Rashard Lewis both had bad nights. Carter went three for 10 and Lewis went three for 11 from the field. They were a combined three for 12 from beyond the arc, with Lewis hitting two of his nine shots from long range.
Hard to fault Lewis for not having his legs. He was busy battling David West all night defensively. Despite Lewis’ best efforts defensively (most of the time), West was simply unconscious hitting on 16 of his 24 shots for 40 points and 10 rebounds.
Most distressingly though was the disappearance of Dwight Howard.
Howard, much like West, was dominating the inside for Orlando throughout the entire night. His final stat line looks pretty solid — 26 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks. But watching this game, you would hardly know Howard was on the floor. And that is something the Magic cannot have.
It did not seem like Howard grabbed a single rebound in the fourth quarter as Aaron Gray, someone Howard has had an up-and-down history against, did a good job pushing Howard away from the basket and holding him (sometimes literally) off the glass. The incredible need for Howard’s help on West opened up rebounding lanes for the Hornets and they took advantage.
Howard looked frustrated and tired. He played the entire second half and played nearly 43 minutes tonight. When push came to shove as New Orleans came back and took the lead, Howard did not seem to have the energy to push back.
Wednesday night against Houston, Orlando went in to Howard to stem the tide and keep Houston at bay. That option was not there tonight as Howard was not working his way toward the basket and was pushed off the block by Gray. Credit his defense and hustle for getting the job done tonight.
At that point, Orlando’s offense had to become an attacking offense. And the team just could not do it. At least not for 48 minutes.
Orlando was must successful tonight when Nelson (or anyone else) was attacking the basket. Up to the third quarter, it really looked like the Magic were playing like a championship team. When Nelson plays as well and efficiently as he was tonight — and he still played a really good game — this team reaches another level. It was good to see Orlando begin to approach that level tonight with Nelson and Howard playing on absolutely the same page.
But as has happened many times this season when the Magic open up a sizeable lead, they got lazy defensively and offensively. They stopped making the simple plays that got them the lead and tried to throw alley-oops to Howard when he wasn’t ready or had someone beneath him preventing him from jumping or took quick 3-pointers without getting penetration first.
Right now, Orlando is not hitting threes at a good clip. So any one of those shots that comes without penetration first is simply a poor shot.
As the Hornets came back — eventually taking the lead after a sequence when West hit a 3-pointer at the end of the shot clock and then followed with a layup off a post up on the next possession — the Magic seemed simply helpless. They were outworked and outhustled and paid the price. They did not deserve to win this game with the effort they put forth in the final 18 minutes of the game.
An 18-point lead with the way this team has shown — and showed tonight — it is capable of playing should be almost insurmountable. It almost seems like Orlando needs something to motivate it to play well. Apparently pride is not enough.
It is not worth overreacting to one game though. But you get the sense this team should be past trying to learn these type of lessons.