Three Thoughts after Magic’s 104-86 Win over Atlanta

Dwight Howard has some Offensive Moves
Defenses, meet the new dynamic offensive dynamo that is Dwight Howard.

I mentioned this last week after Howard had a big game, but tonight’s (and Thursday’s) game seems to make it more necessary to mention Howard’s growing offensive repertoire. Something somewhere clicked inside Howard to turn him into an offensive juggernaut.

Was it the embarrassment he felt after Portland’s smaller post players held him to 11 points in Orlando’s loss on Jan. 15? Was it the Magic deciding to focus more on starting their offense from the inside with Howard? Only the team really knows.

All I know is Howard followed a great performance in Thursday’s win over the Celtics with 31 points and 19 rebounds. He shot 10 of 16 from the floor and made 11 of 18 free throws. The offense is flowing for Howard right now after a lot of people were questioning whether he had made the necessary offensive improvements.

To put those numbers (again) in perspective, Howard is averaging 23.1 points per game and 14.6 rebounds per game while shooting 60.9 percent from the floor and 65.9 percent from the free throw line. On the season (before tonight’s game), he is averaging 17.5 points per game and 13.2 rebounds per game and shooting 60.1 percent from the floor and 60.0 percent from the line.

This last seven-game stretch has helped Howard re-establish himself as an elite player — at least in the eyes of those who only look at offense and statistics.

Clearly his defense has still been incredible. He was +12 tonight and held All Star Al Horford to four points and four rebounds. The Hawks also shot 39.9 percent from the floor.

That is why the Magic have won five of the past seven games and have reclaimed the top spot in the Southeast Division. Not only that, they control Stan Van Gundy’s All Star destiny (with a win tomorrow, they slide to the number two overall seed in the Eastern Conference and send their coach to Dallas in a couple weeks).

Having the Hawks Number
No player or coach took the bait when asked about this after the game last night, but Orlando is playing well against Atlanta, winning the past six games and eight of the last 10. That might not mean a whole lot in the long run as teams change as the seasons go by.

But one reason for the success of this Atlanta team is that things have not changed a whole bunch. Josh Smith and Joe Johnson have been on the team for quite some time. Mike Bibby was added two years ago. The big acquisition this season was Jamal Crawford. For the most part, these Hawks players have truly struggled against the Magic.

This year though, has been especially dominant.

Orlando won the first meeting in Atlanta 93-76 on Thanksgiving with a dominant second-half defensive performance. The Magic then steamrolled the Hawks 113-81 on Jan. 9 to snap a season-high four-game losing streak. That means Orlando is outscoring Atlanta by 67 points total this season, or 22.3 points per game. That is a pretty significant margin.

How are the Magic doing this?

Remember that first meeting: the Hawks were picking apart the Magic and had a fairly comfortable lead entering the second half. They led 51-39 at the break and seemed like they would easily take out their division rivals. Then something clicked in the second half. Orlando snapped into action and put the clamps on Atlanta in probably the most impressive half of basketball the team has played all season.

The Magic held the Hawks to just 25 points in the second half of that game and went on to the easy victory.

The same pattern (while not to that extreme) has occurred in the other two meetings. Atlanta is averaging 37.0 points per second half against Orlando this season. Last week, I wrote that the team was struggling to close out games. Against the Hawks tonight, the Magic had no problems keeping the lead at a safe distance.

Atlanta simply has trouble matching up with Orlando’s quirky lineup despite Josh Smith being able to possibly keep up with Rashard Lewis athletically or Vince Carter continuing to struggle (he scored just six points on 2-of-7 shooting, but I won’t go into that now). The Hawks are shooting an icy 39.3 percent from the floor against the Magic, including just 31.6 percent from beyond the arc.

These correlate somewhat to last year’s numbers when Atlanta averaged 92.5 points per game and shot 41.6 percent from the floor in four games against Orlando.

Be sure that both teams will have March 24 circled on their calendars when the two teams meet for the final time this season.

How Sweet Lew Is
With all this fun talk about Howard’s suddenly emerging offense, I think someone has been left behind a little. That someone is Rashard Lewis.

Lewis, of course, hit the game-winning basket against Boston on Thursday and displayed more than just his 3-point shooting ability. In essence, Lewis is using the expectation that he will just fire away from beyond the arc to his advantage and looking to attack the basket.

He had 17 points on 6-of-10 shooting, hitting on three of his seven 3-point attempts, Saturday against Atlanta. Lewis, who seemingly struggled to find his place in the offense after the addition of Carter and had been slow to get back into rhythm after the 10-game suspension to start the season, has started to come around and be the player Orlando had last season.

If there is any evidence that the Magic are turning a corner or playing at a higher level than they were a few weeks ago, it is in the play of their unconventional power forward.

Since the ill-fated 1-3 road trip, Lewis is averaging 18.3 points per game and shooting 41.9 percent from beyond the arc. More interestingly, Lewis is taking 7.2 3-point attempts per game. His season averages entering tonight’s game are 15.0 points per game, 39.2 percent on 3-point field goals and 6.3 3-point attempts per game.

Lewis is still doing his job and firing away from beyond the arc as he remains among the league leaders in 3-point attempts. But it seems like he is finally on the same page as the rest of the team as Orlando has had it rolling the last few games.

Philip Rossman-Reich

About Philip Rossman-Reich

Philip Rossman-Reich is the managing editor for Crossover Chronicles and Orlando Magic Daily. You can follow him on twitter @OMagicDaily