In a Nutshell
Dwight Howard proves himself worth twice the price of admission but his teammates come in somewhere south of a chalupa as the Blazers' perimeter players destroy their Magic counterparts in an unexpectedly easy (and energetic) Portland win.
Portland lost this game early on and they weren't getting it back. Let's just state that from the top. Portland came out with a 24-second violation on their first possession, looking confused and flat-footed. Dwight Howard scored on a simple post move on Orlando's first play. That set the tone for the first period. The Magic had more fire and more firepower, the latter concentrated fully in their chiseled center. Howard scored in an array of post moves so impressive and smooth they would have made Kareem Abdul-Jabbar look twice. Seriously, he looked like a wholly unstoppable force out there, not just because of his obvious physical attributes but because he was playing basketball. The Blazers looked silly by comparison. The first sign that the Magic had this game in the bag was Howard's 18 points in the first period. The second sign was predicted in the Blazersedge game preview: Portland's offense consisted solely of shooting and missing outside jumpers. The Magic rebounded, walked the ball up the court, tossed it to Dwight, and racked up another score. The third sign came in the second period when Howard took a seat and the Blazers made no indent at all into Orlando's double-digit lead in his absence. Though I never do this, I was sorely tempted to just fast-forward the game through the fourth and start writing about how the Blazers got crushed.
Then a funny thing happened on the way to the morgue.
Halfway through the second period, with Portland's big men looking about as effective as a can of lavender air freshener in a Taco Bell restroom, Coach McMillan pulled every center and faux-center from the game, sticking LaMarcus Aldridge in the pivot slot and surrounding him with the multi-wing brigade plus Andre Miller. Magic prevailed, but it was all red and black magic. Orlando wasn't willing to give Dwight the Shaq treatment, just posting him two inches from the hoop and throwing him the ball. When they did bother to get it to him he had to make a move to get into scoring position, allowing Aldridge and occasional help to get busy with hands and strip the ball. Orlando's perimeter players couldn't get an inch of space on the mobile lineup. The Magic started missing and missing and missing. The Blazers beat them to the boards, both a huge credit to Portland's smaller guys and a signal that Orlando, too, thought they had this game in hand already. With Howard now tasked with guarding Aldridge he was no longer free to camp in the paint. That opened up drives or, more often, drives and dishes to suddenly-open jump shooters. Collectively, anchored by their center, the Magic are a great defensive team in the halfcourt. Individually, with no backing, they're completely mediocre. Their best perimeter defender, Mickael Pietrus, got burned repeatedly one-on-one in this game. If that was happening, you know the Vince Carters and Rashard Lewises of the world didn't have a chance. A dozen-point lead for Orlando at the 6:00 mark shrunk to 1 at the half. The Magic led 46-35.
But see, here comes the genius part. The normal ending to this story would have seen the Magic adjust at halftime, commit to using Howard extremely deep against that small lineup, and eat Portland alive when they tried their little tricks in the second half. You could almost hear them salivating as they exited the locker room. But Portland didn't play that lineup in the second half. Instead Marcus Camby and Joel Przybilla did everything they could to deny Howard the ball and stood firm when he did get it. The Blazers kept busy helping hands around him whenever he tried to put the ball on the floor. They dared anyone else to take the lead. Several Magic players tried but they lacked the prowess. Nor could they help each other, as Portland patrolled the passing lanes...one of the few decent aspects of the Blazer defense this year. For the most part the Magic were stuck giving the ball to Vince Carter or Jameer Nelson and watching them try to hit jumpers off the dribble. That's no good. You could see their grand designs swirling down the drain. You could also see Howard's frustration mount as that 18-point opening period melted into a sloppy 21 for the next three combined...not bad, but not enough to carry the team singlehandedly.
The Blazers, this time with big men in tow, kept up their Herculean efforts on the boards, keeping the Magic from any easy looks. Meanwhile they overtook and then pulled away from their guests with the same fast-paced, cutting, driving, passing game that had served them well in the second period. Marcus Camby stayed outside. Portland's guards and forwards drove in. Howard got a couple blocks but 8 times out of 10 they worked around him and found the easy, open jumper. Another 1 time in 10 was a flat-out layup or dunk. The Magic offense looked forced. The Blazers offense looked forceful. All of a sudden Portland was up 6 and 10 and oh my gosh...is the clock really running down that low? It is! Portland could actually win this thing. Do you think Portland will actually...look! Four minutes left and Portland's up 15! They're going to win! They're going to win! They're...they...they WON!!! 97-83 was the final following the usual free throw parade in the closing minutes. Portland notches their first great win against a good team this year.
After the gloomy start the strategy and energy in this game were impressive. The small-lineup switcheroo was fantastic. Eschewing it afterwards and playing like the team should have played from the start, leaving Orlando swinging where Portland wasn't, was just brilliant. But neither of those strategies would have worked had the players not played with unselfish vigor. The spacing tonight was great. The rebounding was awesome. The passing was crisp. Players without the ball found scoring space before they receive passes and then hit shots. Players with the ball attacked or gave it up. Only two weeks ago we were talking about the worst losses of the season piling on top of each other. This is undoubtedly the best win of the season and it's not even close. What a boost. And how nice to find that the Blazers still have it in there somewhere.
This game belonged to two players with a bunch of help besides.
Andre Miller roared back from his suspension to begin a new consecutive-games streak in style. He beat the snot out of Jameer Nelson (legally...no "foul play" involved) and then ripped apart the Orlando defense with drives and dishes and smart moves off of picks. His energy was impressive because, though constantly evident, it never resulted in wild, "me-first" play. Everything he did broke down the opponent and helped his team without endangering its cohesion. There wasn't a true bad shot in the bunch of his 15. He hit 9 and scored 22 for the game. His understanding of Orlando's defensive weaknesses and his use of space set the tone for this team.
Wes Money also provided obvious energy and drive. He didn't walk anywhere, he sprinted. He didn't hesitate on a shot. We said a couple weeks ago that he wasn't a #1 scoring option in the mold of Brandon Roy and that remains true. But he's proving right now that being able to break a guy down off the dribble doesn't have to begin and end every 20-point night. He made himself available and delivered when his teammates got him the ball. He also got busy on defense, which he's playing better than any Blazer small at this point. 6-12 shooting, 6-6 free throws, 20 points, 3 steals.
The Blazer bigs deserve some credit. This wasn't a dominant night for them, just an efficient one after that first quarter. Marcus Camby had 13 rebounds in 23 minutes, Joel Przybilla 4 in 12 minutes. Camby added 2 steals. Both did their part in getting into Dwight Howard's head, perhaps their most important contribution.
LaMarcus Aldridge had a bad statistical night, shooting 5-15 and getting 6 rebounds with 14 points, 3 turnovers, and 4 fouls. Holding his own with Howard in that second period erases everything though. If LaMarcus weren't a credible offensive threat the Blazers never come back in this game because Howard never leaves the paint.
Brandon Roy had a bad statistical night as well, shooting 4-12 for 9 points. His contributions were even more muted than Aldridge's. However if you watched closely the Magic never, ever felt comfortable leaving Roy and sometimes sent extra men at him despite his struggles. He was mostly a decoy but he was an effective one. Without him on the floor the other guys get watched closer.
Nicolas Batum had another Jolly Saint Nic night, registering 15 points and 10 rebounds on 5-8 shooting, 5-7 from the line. Obviously he helped on the boards. He was also a key figure in that defensive lineup that the Magic perimeter players couldn't solve. Like Matthews, Batum made himself available and took advantage when he touched leather. He also set up 3 assists, keeping the movement going. It was a nice night for Nicolas. He got 27 minutes.
Rudy Fernandez hit a couple of threes, stole the ball once, and scored 6 in 15 minutes.
Patty Mills couldn't back up his performance last game and played 5 mostly-ineffective minutes.
Sean Marks played 2 minutes and didn't hurt anything.
Stats of the Night
- Blazers shoot 44% from the field and 33% from the arc but win handily. They didn't even have an advantage from the foul line until the catch-up free throws at the end of the game. Obviously the meta-game was working tonight.
- Dwight Howard 13-20. Rest of team 17-51. Rashard Lewis, Vince Carter, and Jameer Nelson shoot 8-36 combined...22%.
- Magic 34 points in the paint (keeping in mind Howard scored 39). Blazers 50 points in the paint.
- Take out the 20 the Blazers scored from the foul line and that leaves but 27 points scored for Portland on the perimeter, about 28% of their total. On some nights Portland scores more like 70% of their points from outside.
Odd Notes and Links
THANK YOU TNT for showing complete games this year! I no longer dread Thursday nights.
Hear some unhappiness at OrlandoPinstripedPost.
See your Jersey Contest scores here and enter tomorrow's game right here. Ignore the final question. It was cut and pasted from an earlier one and there was a mistake in the earlier one. Again...just ignore it.