Defense is the magic word in this series. Charlotte and Orlando both have great defensive pedigrees, finishing as the top two teams in defensive efficiency in the NBA this season. Points are going to be hard to come by.
Both teams lived up to their defensive billing in Game One. Be prepared for a knock down, drag ‘em out, low-scoring series.
Dwight Howard set the tone on the second play, cleanly obliterating a Theo Ratliff layup for his first of nine blocks. Orlando held as much as a 22-point lead and survived scoring just 39 points in the second half and foul trouble from Howard and Vince Carter for a 98-89 Game One victory Sunday at Amway Arena.
The Bobcats vowed to attack Howard on offense and foul him whenever he got the ball deep. They delivered on both promises and it greatly affected how this game was played.
First Charlotte attacked Howard and the paint early and often. Howard responded well with a flurry of blocked shots. Six of his nine blocks were in the first quarter.
With Howard in, the Bobcats simply could not operate well offensively and even defensively.
Charlotte elected to keep Theo Ratliff — or Nazr Mohammed once Ratliff quickly picked up two fouls — tethered to Howard on the screen and roll. Jameer Nelson would come around the corner of a screen and find either an easy jumper or an open lane to the basket. Nelson took advantage in the first half to score 24 points, including a 40-foot 3-pointer that just made you think it was his night.
Nelson then became the focal point offensively as anytime Howard touched the ball he was not given much space to operate, was doubled hard and was wrapped up or fouled to prevent him from doing anything. Dwight missed his first two free throws and went one of six from the line.
If Charlotte had no answer for Howard while the team was on offense, it at least had a way to knock him off the scoreboard. Even if Howard was still affecting things in the Bobcats’ defense and opening other things up. Rashard Lewis was another player who took advantage. He finished the night with 19 points and five rebounds, electing many times to take the ball off the dribble and attack rather than staying put at the 3-point line.
Howard finished with only five points on 2-of-4 shooting. He added seven rebounds to go with his nine blocks.
Why the low rebounding total? Howard struggled with fouls in the second half, picking up two quick fouls early in the third quarter and sitting down with four fouls.
That changed the entire complexion of the game.
Instead of Charlotte having to worry about Howard swatting its shots left and right, the team could now attack the basket with almost reckless abandon. The Magic’s defense was not horrible, but the Bobcats repeatedly were able to create enough space through cuts, curls and post ups to get inside the Magic’s defense.
Charlotte drew 24 fouls against Orlando and hit 16 of 22 on free throws in the second half — the team finished 22 of 28. The Bobcats had a 10-0 run in the third quarter that brought the game back into single digits with eight of those points coming on free throws.
When Orlando was not fouling, with Howard in or out of the lineup, the defense was very effective. Charlotte shot 46.5 percent from the floor and an icy 3 for 11 from beyond the arc.
Even with the Bobcats making a comeback and getting within five points, the Magic had an answer every time. Whether it was Vince Carter shooting a leaning runner with the shot clock expiring and hitting it. Or Mickael Pietrus failing to draw a foul at the 3-point line and hoisting (and making) the shot while tripping over Gerald Wallace. Those shots were the back breakers that kept Orlando firmly in control.
But Charlotte had a chance because of its defense and Orlando settling for jumpers. With Howard out of the game for most of the second half — Howard played only 28 minutes tonight — the Magic lost their defensive stalwart and lost their focal point on offense.
The Bobcats took advantage.
It seemed the entire second half Orlando was starting its offensive sets late and were just rotating the ball around the perimeter until there were five or six seconds remaining on the shot clock. It was impressive perimeter defense from the Bobcats, something we should expect the rest of the series.
Nelson could not carry over his hot shooting into the second half. He finished the game with 32 points and six of his eight second half points came at the foul line late in the game. The Bobcats hedged out more to cut off Nelson’s driving lanes and force him further away from the screener. This effectively knocked out the pick and roll.
With Carter struggling offensively with 4-of-19 shooting and then eventually fouling out in the middle of the fourth quarter, Orlando seemed short of offensive options. Stan Van Gundy will have to find a way to get his players to attack Charlotte’s aggressive defense and create space to drive into the paint. That is where this series will be won.
It is not likely this series will see the kind of offensive output the Magic displayed throughout the first half — 31 in the first quarter and 59 in the first half. A lot of it came from Howard’s presence and the attention the Bobcats’ defense gave him.
It will be important for Orlando to have Howard on the floor to win this series. He is truly a game changer defensively and can completely knock the Bobcats off their game and change what they want to do.
Tonight Charlotte got him off the floor in the second half and nearly stole Game One — or at least made it more interesting than it should have been. The Magic will have to find a way to keep their Superman from being a non factor for as long as he was tonight.