The big picture never looked bleaker than an awful moment midway through the first quarter.
Glen Davis and the Magic were rolling, beginning to build a lead with some relatively suffocating defense and a patient, attacking offense — the kinds of things we did not see in a Friday loss to the Hawks. This looked like a game that would be just the confidence-booster the team needed to strengthen morale and build momentum for a final push without Dwight Howard.
But then Davis banged knees with a Cavaliers player going up for an offensive rebound and crumpled to the floor. Davis was grabbing his knee and got off the floor under his own power. But Davis did not return, officially diagnosed for the moment with a sprained knee. That could leave him out for a while.
And so the door was open for Daniel Orton. In a game against an undermanned, lottery-bound team but with the chance to solidify Playoff positioning and actually clinch a spot in the postseason, calling on the little-used second-year player was an extreme risk. Expecting Daniel Orton to contribute in a major way and help Orlando hold on to a double digit lead? That seemed like a pipe dream.
Orton’s contributions — a final stat line of 11 points, four rebounds, five steals and three blocks on 3-for-4 shooting and 5-for-8 shooting from the foul line — exemplified the kind of effort and contributions from the bench the team will need to survive these final stretch of games without Dwight Howard. And maybe not even just survive, but succeed.
Orton’s ability to keep the team steady with a shot-blocking presence and without making any major mistakes was the kind of contribution the team got up and down the roster. Earl Clark too stepped into the spot left open from Davis’ injury too, as much as Orton if not without the surprise.
Orlando opened up a 20-point lead late in the second quarter behind all that momentum and surprise and were never really threatened in the second half thanks to a dominating and controlling performance from Jameer Nelson.
Most importantly, for the long term, the Magic assured they will be going to the Playoffs for the sixth straight year after dispatching the Cavaliers 100-84 at Quicken Loans Arena on Sunday.
Stan Van Gundy said he literally called every play in the second half for Nelson and the team captain took the reigns and attacked off the pick and roll. He scored 11 points in the third quarter and finished with 21 points, seven rebounds and nine assists. With Orton stealing the headlines, it was easy to overlook the job Nelson did managing this team.
The third quarter was all about Nelson darting in and out of the lane and wreaking havoc. The defense may not have been playing at the same level it was in the first half, when Orlando held Cleveland to 30 points, but Nelson ensured the offense kept humming.
The Magic had only six turnovers in the game total and just two in the first half. Orlando got into trouble in the first half, giving up a 7-0 run to end the half to hold a 13-point halftime lead, when it settled for quick 3-pointers or midrange jumpers and turned the ball over.
The margin for error was still small. But Orlando made sure to take advantage of the opportunity and to slam the door shut.
Everyone contributed on the roster and that is what the Magic will need to survive this stretch.
The question of course is can Orton come out with a similar effort Monday night if Davis is out? Will Earl Clark be able to match his 13 points on a perfect 5-for-5 shooting? Can the Magic survive another 3-for-11 shooting night from Ryan Anderson (he still contributed nine points and 13 rebounds)? Is Orlando’s defense going to be able to help it win on nights where the team shoots 45.6 percent from the floor?
At least Orlando knows it can win when everything doeos not work perfectly. That the team can grind out wins with Dwight Howard on the bench.
And in the big picture, goal number one has been accomplished. The Magic will move on and compete for an NBA championship (at least nominally).