The chants started raining down in the third quarter as Dwight Howard stepped to the free throw line. It did not matter that it was the first game of the year or that he had only been dismantling the Washington defense for little more than a quarter after struggling to break free offensively against the athletic bigs for the Wizards. He probably could not help but smile at the comedy of it all.
MVP chants in the first game? Against an opponent playing without two of its better players and even with them might struggle stay in playoff contention?
No one wanted to see anything bad on a night when Orlando officially opened the Amway Center to regular season basketball. All the fireworks were there with the players walking through a mist curtain onto the court and the team revealing the technological marvel that is video using the entire length of the gigantic scoreboard (this effect is really hard to describe, go to a Magic game and you will know).
With a 112-83 victory in the season opener against Washington where Orlando dominated from start to finish, it is easy to say everything is hunky dory and that Howard is in fact on his way to an MVP-type season. But let me argue there were some chinks in the armor tonight — to go along with a lot of very good basketball.
It is very important to note, as Stan Van Gundy and all the players did heading into tomorrow’s game against The Team Which Shall Not Be Named, this is just one game just like any other (especially Friday’s game). There is nothing to overreact to in this game. But there are signs of concern.
Orlando committed 21 turnovers in tonight’s game, 14 of them coming from the bench. For something that is supposedly one of Orlando’s strengths, the bench struggled mightily protecting the ball and things bogged down when they came in.
On top of that, this seemed to be like the preseason game where you knock off all the rust for the Magic. There were a lot of forced passes trying to get the ball to Howard and a few too many three second violations as guys — Dwight Howard — were parking in the lane waiting for shots to go up. Maybe that has more to do with a more aggressive nature in Orlando, but still turnovers are turnovers.
Stan Van Gundy has not been bashful about admitting his team’s issues with turnovers throughout the preseason. They did not disappear tonight. But that is a normal problem early in the season. But an 18.7 percent turnover rate is not exactly inspiring confidence.
It is not that they played particularly bad though. Washington’s bench — or starters for that matter — were not much better. There was just a general mishandling of the ball throughout the game. Marcin Gortat led the bench unit with eight points. Mickael Pietrus scored eight in 12 minutes, checking in during the fourth quarter for the first time. Like I said nothing particularly bad from this unit, but the approximately 83.3 offensive rating is not exactly inspiring confidence.
You don’t want to harp too much on negatives after a 29-point win, but Washington was only effective in this one when the team was able to get out on the break. And a lot of that has to do with John Wall. That is what he is good at.
Otherwise the Wizards had no shot in this one.
The starting five was simply dominant in helping get Orlando to a 29-15 lead after one quarter. The lead only grew from there getting to 35 at one point.
The tone for this one was set on the first few possessions. The first quarter was a slow affair and it was difficult to believe the Magic were dominating the way they were. But it all started rolling toward a blowout when Vince Carter and Rashard Lewis started the game by attacking the basket. That is right, the two attacked the basket. And attacked it often.
Carter looked vintage tonight — minus thunderous, gravity-defying dunks — and for a small stretch in the second quarter looked like he might have “one of those games.” He finished with 15 points on 8-of-12 shooting and took only five 3-pointers. More importantly it all came through the offense. Carter did not take crazy off-balance shots until he was in a rhythm — a rhythm that was not really broken until Carter took a heat-check 30-foot 3-pointer that hit the front rim.
Lewis also started off attacking. He got some extended time at small forward with Brandon Bass sliding into the lineup. And he took advantage of it. Lewis scored 13 points and, perhaps more importantly, grabbed seven rebounds. It appears from those numbers that Stan Van Gundy has found an effective way to use Lewis at small forward and bolster the rebounding around Dwight Howard.
Of course, this team begins and ends with Howard and he earned those MVP chants with a stellar third quarter.
Throughout the first half, Washington elected to swarm Howard with defenders and send him to the free throw line. But facing single coverage and adjusting to any double that came, Howard was patient and made good passes to the perimeter to get guys in a position to make the next pass or take the shot. He also attacked with the intent to score and he did so most of the time or went to the line for that opportunity.
Howard’s final stat line: 23 points, 10 rebounds, three blocks, 7 for 9 field goals, 9 for 19 free throws. As you can see, Washington took its chances with Howard on the free throw line. Howard did not make the Wizards play the full price, but adjusted enough to dominate the third quarter.
The team defense was the most impressive thing in tonight’s game. Washington for the most part was met at every turn by a solid team rotation, Howard or Gortat and a hand in its face. The Wizards, who really lack a solid 3-point shooter, made 37.2 percent of their shots and hit on only four of their 19 3-point attempts. That was good for approximately an 82.2 defensive rating for the Magic. Impressive.
Orlando had the energy tonight, fighting for loose balls and not settling for jumpers too often.
There was a lot to be pleased with as Orlando simply took care of business tonight. But a lot will need to be corrected and the focus will need to be sharper for the first road test of the season Friday night.