Second unit success gives Magic the cushion


Orlando’s second unit has been the butt of a lot of jokes lately. Injuries had forced several players into different roles and had depleted an already thin team. The beginning of the second and fourth quarters were things to be dreaded.

Against the Cavaliers on Friday, the bench was something the Magic needed to rely on. Especially after the late rally from the Cavaliers and the hack-a-Howard strategy helped them trim a 21-point deficit to five late in the game.

Dwight Howard was going to end up dominating this game one way or another. And with the second unit scoring and providing a ton of energy — 21 points off the bench tonight — and Howard awakening in the second half for one of his best defensive games of the year, Orlando became just too much.

Cleveland scored 41 points in the fourth quarter to make the game close. The game needed a close and that is where Howard and Hedo Turkoglu came in. Yes, Dwight Howard’s missed free throws were a big reason for Cleveland being able progressively to close the gap. But he finished by making six of his last seven foul shots. And then Hedo Turkoglu finished the game off with a step back jumper from the top of the free throw circle.

The Cavaliers could not complete the comeback against a relatively disinterested effort from the starters at the end. Orlando picked up its second straight win and its second straight game with more than 100 points (yes, that matters after this past week) in a 102-94 win at Amway Center on Friday.

Cleveland is a hard-working team and that showed in the comeback and at points throughout the game. The Cavaliers had 18 offensive rebounds and guys like Anderson Varejao, Antawn Jamison and even Kyrie Irving did a nice job attacking the offensive glass. Dwight Howard was doing a lot of rebounding on his own.

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But for the first time all year, Howard seemed willing to be that bully in the paint deterring every shot and drive that came his way. The defense was as active as it had been all year with Howard as the linchpin.

Howard set the tone defensively with eight blocked shots, chasing down and altering Kyrie Irving’s slithery drives into the lane. Not to mention any other forays deep into the paint. Howard also scored 19 points on 5-for-12 shooting and 9-for-16 free throw shooting (all 16 attempts coming in the fourth quarter). He added 16 rebounds, coming oh so close to his second career triple double.

The fourth quarter run came about mainly because the Cavaliers got smart and dished out of the paint to Alonzo Gee when the Magic’s defense sucked into the paint. Sessions scored 14 points on 3-for-8 shooting. But it was Gee’s big performance in the fourth quarter that got the Cavaliers back into the game. Gee scored 20 points on 7-for-12 shooting, catching fire in the fourth quarter.

Soon Cleveland was turning some of Orlando’s missed shots, which Howard surprisingly contributed to, into fast break opportunities. And the Magic were disinterested for most of the fourth quarter to slow them down and get the defense set. When the defense was set, Orlando played well for the most part.

That energy was missing late. And it seemed to begin when Stan Van Gundy reloaded and brought his starters in for what I am sure he thought would be a brief stint to keep the lead at 20 before throwing the second unit back in.

That second unit was the big saving grace for the Magic tonight, providing the energy and push that has been so rare this season.

Von Wafer scored 11 points, getting to the line for five free throws. Earl Clark, after a rough start shooting one for seven from the floor, had eight points. Ish Smith looked good in his first game, proving himself to be a willing passer and a quick guard who could force some action — at least against Cleveland.

Yes, no player on the bench had a positive plus-minus rating. But the energy they provided was unexpected and important when the starters came back in.

The Magic pulled away for a lead that proved to be insurmountable in the middle of the second quarter when the Magic began hitting 3-pointers and breaking out of an offensive malaise that permeated an 18-point first quarter.

Energy was obviously the key to this game. When Orlando played with energy and effort, Cleveland really could not keep up.

Jason Richardson was certainly a sign of that, coming back from resting his knee with 19 points on 7-for-12 shooting. Hedo Turkoglu also had a matching 7-for-12 effort with 18 points. And the extra day of rest and day of practice helped get the offense in sync. The team committed only five turnovers int he game.

The game was not perfect. The offensive rebounds were a problem. Cleveland was able to get dribble penetration and get the Orlando defense off balance. Not to mention, the Magic shot 42.5 percent. They scored but were hardly stellar the entire night offensively. Ball movement and energy, as they have been all year, were the keys.

So, the test is what comes next when Orlando has the strange travel ordeal to Indiana tomorrow. Momentum is the next day’s pitcher.