The Orlando Magic defeated the Portland Trail Blazers, 107-104, in the Rose Garden on Wednesday night, dropping Portland to 7-3 on the season.
The first half against the Los Angeles Lakers -- you remember, the one that wasn't televised by TNT -- immediately received almost mythical treatment for how crisp and up-and-down the play was on both sides. Neither team in that game played as well as Orlando did in the opening stages of this one. The Magic scored 36 points on just 20 field goal attempts, registering assists on nine of their 14 made baskets. They were one, two, sometimes three steps ahead of a Portland defense that wasn't out there laying an egg.
Coaches talk about the chess match that a dominant big man like Dwight Howard creates with his massive, talented presence. When to single-cover? When to double? When to intentionally foul? Orlando's chess play in the first half was to pick up its king, ponder things carefully, put down the king, look around, and then take a giant swipe at the board, knocking all of Portland's pieces to the ground. Orlando had a rest day while Portland was on the second half of a back-to-back, and that's always a factor, but this wasn't Portland making Orlando look excellent. This was Orlando making Orlando look excellent.
"I think it's just the clean air here, all the trees, there's just an abundance of oxygen," Magic guard J.J. Redick quipped. "I think we just had extra energy."
The Magic entered the game as the NBA's No. 2 team in 3-point makes and No. 4 team in 3-point attempts, and they finished the night with 16 three-pointers to tie an NBA single-game season-high. It took Orlando just a quarter and a half to make more threes than any other Portland opponent this season. Six different Magic players connected from distance and Orlando actually shot better from the three-point line (16-for-27 for 59.3 percent) than they did on two-point attempts (25-for-43 for 58.1 percent). That's difficult for any team to do, let alone one boasting Howard, who is currently No. 4 in the league in field goal percentage and hasn't shot worse than 57 percent for a season since 2005-2006.
"I thought our ball movement was the best it has been early in the year," Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said. "Our energy and ball movement was outstanding."
The inside-out passing from Howard was key.
"They started out on fire," Blazers coach Nate McMillan said. "They pretty much got what they wanted. Howard was deep in the post. The plan was to do try and get him off the block and play him straight up and stay with their three-point shooters. But we lost those guys and they knocked down every mistake we made. [Then] we tried to defend the perimeter and stay out and play Howard straight up [and] he punished us in the paint."
Howard finished with four assists but he seemed to have at least as many hockey assists, setting up open shot after open shot as Portland scrambled to rotate to shooters time and again.
"I've been trying to do that all season long," Howard said. "Just trying to get the other guys around me easy shots. Reading double teams when they collapse, pass it out, just trying to be an overall better player."
"He's doing a good job of -- when the defense collapses -- he's finding guys on the perimeter," McMillan said. "That's a tough offense to defend when you have both inside and outside going."
"It's easy for them to move the ball and we didn't play well on defense because we were too focused on Dwight," Blazers forward Nicolas Batum explained. "When they were shooting, we never touched them. We let them cut free, we let them run their plays. We had to be more physical and we came up short."
Orlando's All-Star center, who finished with just 13 points and is averaging four points less this season than he did last year, said his increased distribution was by necessity.
"I haven't gotten into a good rhythm yet offensively," he said. "A lot of my shots are not falling. I'm just going to keep playing and finding my teammates."
Out of rhythm or not, Howard was jokey, relaxed, patient and seemingly content afterwards, not at all what you would expect from a superstar who has reportedly requested a trade and whose name has been in daily rumors for months. Indeed, Howard's mood was night-and-day from last year, when he said the Magic "folded" during a double-digit Portland victory and seemed beyond frustrated playing for a team that was struggling at the time. This year, he spoke about trying to win a title with the Magic in a lockout-shortened season.
"I'm happy that our team is playing great basketball," Howard said. "We've just got to continue to play that way for us to win. We're in a unique situation and we have an opportunity with this short season to win a championship. That's the only thing I want to accomplish."
The ease with which Orlando stormed out to a 23-point lead -- and the fact that the Magic successfully staved off a strong fourth-quarter comeback thanks to some timely Hedo Turkoglu three-pointers and just enough foul shooting -- made it easy to be jubilant. The Magic have a serious respect factor for both the Blazers and the Rose Garden and they were borderline ecstatic with their road victory.
The lessons for Portland from their first home loss of the season were of the "reminder" variety.
First, early production from Gerald Wallace is a virtual necessity. Wallace went 22 minutes before making his first basket and, by then, the hole was already dug.
Second, a late-game lineup that doesn't include Raymond Felton can do some serious unconventional damage defensively, with Batum and Wallace free to trap ball-handlers and jump passing lanes with abandon. When McMillan pulled Felton against the Sacramento Kings, Batum and Wallace wreaked havoc, but Sacramento's guards aren't exactly held up as the league standard for intelligence and decision-making. Wednesday showed that they hadn't had a fluke impact. The victim this time was the veteran, playoff-tested Jameer Nelson, who finished the game with five turnovers, including two in the last minute which improbably, albeit briefly, turned a near-blowout into a one-possession game.
Finally, after a rough week or so, Blazers guard Jamal Crawford returned to form, finding his stroke to shoot 10-for-17 for 24 points, including 14 points during the second half comeback. The season-high 24 points were more than Crawford scored in his previous three games combined (23) and his 10 field goals were more than the 7 combined shots he made in those games against the Phoenix Suns, Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Clippers.
While McMillan said on Tuesday that he might adjust his lineup so that rookie guard Nolan Smith could play alongside Crawford to help set him up, Smith never saw the court on Wednesday. Instead, McMillan played Crawford with Felton to start and then installed him as the point guard down the stretch.
"I was off the ball to start and then, at that point, you get a rhythm and you can go back on the ball," Crawford said, explaining that the arrangement succeeded in taking off some of the pressure he had been feeling. "When I'm on the court and I'm thinking too much, I'm just an average player. But when I'm out there being me, that's what separates me."
Crawford said that a pre-game conversation with McMillan helped too.
"It's always nice to talk to coach about different things," he said. "He has a lot of faith in me. When he talks to you and says, 'Go out there and be you, you're the guy we brought here to do certain things, we know who you are, be that person.' It's tough [to be too excited] coming off a loss but you take the positives out of the loss and learn from it."
Random Game Notes
- Jamal Crawford hit Dwight Howard with the 206 Grunge crossover combination late in the fourth quarter. Hide your wife, hide your kids.
- Former Portland Trail Blazers guard Patty Mills attended the game, wore a Mike & Mike t-shirt (see it here by WearsMyShirt.com) and answered questions from reporters while receiving high-fives from his former teammates in Portland's locker after the game. Mills said he attended the game "just like a Blazermaniac, I parked on a side street and walked all the way in."
- Mills said he is still recovering from a hamstring injury and is in limbo until he received a clearance letter from FIBA that would allow him to join an NBA team after he was recently released by Xinjiang of the Chinese Basketball Association. As for a possible return to Portland, Mills said: "I'd love to be back here. I don't know the chances but I feel like I'm very close to the guys here and the community. Coming back to a place like this definitely feels like home." He expects to be healthy soon, possibly within a week or so.
- Speaking of former Blazers point guards, it took 10 games, but Andre Miller is not happy with his role as a back-up to Ty Lawson in Denver.
- Redick told an incredibly inquisitive reporter that he's about to start watching "Breaking Bad" DVDs to help pass the time on Orlando's current road trip. "Great f****ing show," chimed in Glen Davis, out of nowhere. Right now you're either slapping yourself in the forehead thinking "I'm agreeing with Big Baby. Am I nuts?" or you have no idea what "Breaking Bad" is and you're googling it.
- Howard goaltended a shot into the fifth row on the baseline, nailing a man who was holding a beer, although there was minimal spillage. You don't see that every game.
- Howard with props for the Rose Garden crowd: "It's one of the best. Probably the best. Just how they stuck with their team even though they were down by a lot. Cheering them back in the game. It was loud. It was great, that's always a lot of fun."
- Jamal Crawford converted his first 4-point play as a member of the Blazers. It was his NBA-record 34th of his career.
- Raymond Felton got pulled in crunch-time but his body double Jameer Nelson made sure to commit two tribute turnovers to his benched colleague. The blindside rip from Wesley Matthews was criminal activity.
- Nicolas Batum said Portland's comebacks last year give the Blazers a confidence level when down big at home. "We did [come back] a couple of times last year. I remember those games we're down five or six, two minutes to go and we win it. I know we can do it... We came back [tonight]. We almost got it."
- Batum fouled Jason Richardson with 28 seconds to go and the Blazers down three. Nate McMillan said the plan was to trap first and then foul (see below). Batum confirmed that he wasn't supposed to foul in the situation. "I should not foul him because in that spot he can make some mistakes with our trap. I should have just trapped him. That was my bad."
- The Idaho Stampede sent out a press release recap of a Wednesday game against the Bakersfield Jam that read, in part: "It was a rough game for Idaho's Armon Johnson, who shot 1-for-13 from the field and scored only four points. On assignment from the Portland Trail Blazers, Johnson is working on striking a balance between scoring and distributing." Ouch.
- If Luke Babbitt ever makes a basket he will never buy a drink in this city again. The excitement when he lined up his three-pointer, which missed, was palpable.
- Stan Van Gundy freaking loves the Blazers or he does a great job pretending like he does. Some of his pre-game quotes. "I think [LaMarcus Aldridge] is maybe the most underrated guy in the league. Definite All-Star who hasn't been there." The Magic would have to use "Ryan [Anderson], Dwight [Howard], Glen [Davis], Earl Clark, the kitchen sink, anything we can" to defend Aldridge.
- Van Gundy on Gerald Wallace: "We need more guys like him in our league... One of the great pros in our league. I'm happy for him that he's having a great start."
Nate McMillan's Post-Game Comments
Dug yourself a hole
Yeah, they started out on fire. They pretty much got what they wanted. Howard was deep in the post. The plan was to do try and get him off the block and play him straight up and stay with their three-point shooters. But we lost those guys and they knocked down every mistake we made. We tried to defend the perimeter and stay out and play Howard straight up, he punished us in the paint. So one of those deals where they got their rhythm, we dug a hole, I liked the fact that the guys kept fighting and were able to fight their way back into the game and give themselves a chance to possibly tie the game, win the game.
Orlando's first quarter offense
They made shots. We've had a couple of games where teams have shot 70 or 80 percent in that first quarter. Tonight, I have to look at the tape but it seemed like every mistake we made, whether that was turning the ball over or late on our close outs, they buried those perimeter jump shots. It was everybody who was shooting the ball. And then you've got big Howard down in the paint, you get a little hesitant in your rules defending the post. He made a couple of passes, he's doing a good job of -- when the defense collapses -- he's finding guys on the perimeter. That's a tough offense to defend when you have both inside and outside going.
Slow start on offense
I thought we missed some lay-ups. I think that was pretty obvious, we weren't able to get going. Missed some shots. They made everything that they threw up there. We dug ourselves a hole early in this game.
What keyed the comeback?
Our small line-up. We went to some trapping and spreading the floor. Our post-ups were not working with our starting unit. Howard was just a one-man zone clogging, double-teaming any post-up that we had. We went away from the post-ups and went to more of a spread offense and pick-and-rolls. The small line-up with Gerald at the four, LaMarcus at the five with our guards is what got us back into the game.
Batum fouled RIchardson on a final possession. Did you want to foul there?
Well we wanted to trap, we didn't want to foul. We didn't want them to run the clock down and just sit on the ball so we wanted to get one trap without fouling unless Howard touched the ball. But trap, see what we could get, and then play straight up defense. We didn't want them to just sit out there and dribble the clock out but we wanted to trap once and see if we can get it. We forced some things but we didn't want to foul in that situation.
He made some tough shots. He was part of helping us get back into the game.
Magic won the rebounding battle in the first half
I thought they controlled the game the first half. Not only the boards but offense, defense, Howard disrupted by really defending the paint. We didn't knock down shots. Until we went to a smaller unit and spread the floor we weren't able to get anything going.
Losing at home for the first time
This start we've been pretty good here at home. We dropped this game tonight. Now we need to go out on the road. Only three road games we've played. And now it's a test. Where we've got to catch up on our road games. We'll start in San Antonio.
Marcus Camby's minutes
He got in foul trouble and as I said the small line-up was working for us.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter