It was not going to be easy. Playing on the road against a Playoff caliber opponent never it is. Having to take a short flight from Cincinnati to Indianapolis the morning of the game, could have done a lot to throw Orlando off its game.
Not to mention the Pacers constant pressure in the back court forcing the Magic into those pesky turnovers and slowed-down offense. And not to mention Indiana’s physical identity dictating the pace of play especially in the fourth quarter.
It was always a sign of the Stan Van Gundy teams to be able to grind games out when things were not going well. This was not quite that quietly dominant or quietly assured team of a few years ago. Indiana made the late run and rattled Orlando into some odd violations. But when Danny Granger‘s 3-pointer rattled off and Hedo Turkoglu finally secured the rebound, taking a good smack to the head from David West for good measure, the Magic had survived the worst of it.
Well, they survived the worst of it after Ryan Anderson sank two free throws on the next possession because Turkoglu elected to hurl the ball down the court and pick up a technical foul giving the Pacers another piece of hope. Luckily for Orlando, the team had one more play. It came from Earl Clark who tipped an inbound pass off of Roy Hibbert out of bounds.
The Magic survived, grinding out an 85-81 victory at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
Orlando was far from perfect. A lot of it Stan Van Gundy chalked up to fatigue. There were tons of turnovers. There were a rash of technical fouls as frustration mounted from the physical play. The Magic had five in all, including a whole bunch in the final moments of the fourth quarter — Dwight Howard picked one up too when he argued a foul called in his favor with the baseline referee who missed it (yeah, it was an extremely stupid time to pick one up at a critical time of the game).
But for all the lack of composure, and all the lack of precision throughout the game, Orlando never trailed int eh second half and found a way to execute enough on both ends of the floor to pick up the win. In that way, it certainly resembled the teams of old. And a three-game winning streak begins to heal some wounds and create confidence moving forward.
In a lot of ways this could be a confidence-building win. Indiana is one of the top teams in the East and plays the kind of bruising style that often frustrates Orlando. But the Magic attacked the Pacers early and established Dwight Howard in the post early and went to him often.
Howard, ate up Roy Hibbert (his likely reserve on the Eastern Conference All-Star team in a few weeks). He scored 27 points on 10-for-16 shooting. It was his best offensive game of the year as far as low post moves go (save for maybe the Golden State game when he just paraded to the line all night).
That was definitely a positive moment.
So too was the energy and play of Jason Richardson. In just his second game back after taking some time off to rest his still-sore knee, Richardson found a nice rhythm and paced Orlando throughout the game. He scored 17 points and added five assists. Stan Van Gundy used a curl play where Richardson would catch the ball at around the elbow off a screen from Howard or Ryan Anderson.
The play that Richardson and the Magic will remember from this game though came on a fast break. Danny Granger looked to be ahead of the pack for an easy layup when Richardson chased him down and blocked the layup off the backboard without fouling. It was those kind of effort plays that separated the defensive effort of the first half from the one of the second.
Both teams scored 39 points by halftime. But the Pacers never could find their footing offensively. They shot 34.1 percent for the game. Stan Van Gundy was the first to ask whether that was the Magic defense or fatigue setting in. Likely it was a bit of both.
Orlando held Indiana to 14 points in the third quarter and just 32 points in the middle two quarters. The Pacers had only five points in the first eight minutes of the second half. It allowed the Magic to open up a double-digit lead. It was a modest one though as Orlando’s offense was struggling too. Outside of Richardson and Howard, no one seemed to be making shots. And when that well dried up, you could see frustration creeping in and with the added fatigue it made Orlando much sloppier.
The Pacers crept back into the game with a crazed effort on the offensive glass. Tyler Hansbrough scored 17 points off the bench and had his usual energetic performance to push and prod the Magic. He grabbed only three offensive rebounds, but it seemed like more. He changed the game. Then the Pacers woke up thanks to a brief shoving match between Quentin Richardson and Danny Granger that saw Richardson dismissed from the game.
That moment and Hansbrough’s effort sparked something in the Pacers late in that third quarter.
Orlando was not helping its own effort though. The Magic committed 17 turnovers through three quarters and committed seven more in the fourth. You will not win many games with 24 turnovers on the box score. And likely those 24 turnovers kept the Magic from pulling away more when the 3-pointers were falling in the early third quarter.
Nothing prevented the Magic from executing though once they calmed down their emotions and overcame their fatigue. The Pacers had their chances to tie the game at the end, but could not get the shots to fall and could not make the plays to win. Orlando fought for this one extremely hard, even if it was not a perfect effort.
Jason Richardson said in his postgame interview with FSFlorida that this was a statement win for the Magic. That may be going a bit too far in the court of national public opinion. But considering the fatigue on the team, the ugliness of the game, the trials the team went through last year, and the difficulty of the opponent, it might be more of a statement to the team itself.
That statement is that last week was a fatigue-driven blip and that this is still a team that can compete for a top seed in the East. Only time will tell what statement Orlando made Saturday night.