The Orlando Magic showed what an NBA team can do when left wide open for 48 minutes in a 103-93 victory over the Phoenix Suns Wednesday night in Orlando.
The Magic hit 11-of-23 from beyond the arc, including seven by Ryan Anderson, who had a team-high 29 points. Dwight Howard was dominant in the paint, scoring 28 points and disrupting the Suns’ offense with his mere presence in the key.
This matchup featured six players who have played for both the Suns and the Magic. One of those players, Marcin Gortat, was clearly nervous about the reunion, and it showed on the court.
Dwight Howard dominated his former backup on both ends of the floor. On offense Gortat looked like a quarterback who had been sacked one too many times and was now hearing footsteps on each dropback. His shot attempts were awkward and forced as he was clearly trying to avoid having his shot blocked by Howard. He also fumbled at least three passes that hit him squarely in the hands. Marcin ended the night with only four points on 1-of-7 shooting.
“He basically destroyed me and the whole team,” Gortat told Magic.com’s Josh Cohen.
On defense, Gortat recorded consecutive stops on Howard to begin the first quarter, but could do little to stop him for the rest of the game. The Suns brought double teams from every corner of the court in an attempt to keep Howard confused and tentative. Initially the Suns forced him into missed shots or passes out to the perimeter. By the end of the first quarter, however, Howard had figured out the Suns’ scheme and scored at will the rest of the way. From that point on, when the Suns brought a double team Howard did one of three things: 1) Hit a wide open shooter on the perimeter. 2) Initiated contact with the second defender and earned free throws. 3) Spun away from the second defender and scored on Gortat with a jump hook.
Dwight’s ability to finish with either hand was on full display in tonight’s game. He made scoring over the 7-foot Gortat look quite easy. By turning over his shoulder he created space between he and Gortat, which allowed him to elevate over Marcin’s outstretched hand with a jump hook or get by him with a dribble and two steps toward the hole. This is one of the most assertive games Howard has played in the post all season, and it’s clear he had something to prove against Gortat in this matchup.
The Suns’ double-teaming was the reason behind many of their defensive lapses in this game. From the outset, Phoenix was trapping in all four corners of the court. If the ball was swung into the baseline corner, the Suns brought a second defender. If Jameer Nelson dribbled right or left from the top of the key, Phoenix brought a second defender.
This worked out well for the Suns in the game’s opening minutes as they forced Orlando into five first quarter turnovers. The success came to a halt when Ryan Anderson started burying open threes. The constant double teaming led to mismatches, which Orlando exploited throughout the game.
Suns’ defenders were constantly rotating and switching, which allowed Orlando to beat them by making the extra pass to the open man. This style of defense is a gamble to be sure, but Phoenix could have hedged their bet with a strong effort from all five guys on the floor. The effort was not there at all.
The most glaring offender was Channing Frye, who was caught in slow rotation so many times I lost count. His mistakes were simply a lack of hustle, and they led to several easy buckets for the Magic. Up and down the Phoenix roster, players refused to close out strongly on open shooters, which allowed Orlando to shoot nearly 50 percent from deep. Both times someone did run at Anderson, he drew a foul and shot three free throws. Elston Turner will have to find some practice time to go over this defensive scheme with the team before they use it again. The Suns were either too tired or simply unprepared to put forth the requisite effort to defend the most prolific 3-point shooting team in the league.
The other startling defensive issue was penetration. Orlando’s small backcourt players — JJ Redick, Chris Duhon, and Jameer Nelson — were able to get into the key at will. Mostly off ball reversal, Orlando’s guards caught their defenders flatfooted and blew by them with ease. Once in the key, they could score at the rim or dish to a big for an easy finish. Either way, they made Phoenix’s defense look awful every time they stepped foot in the paint. Even Glen “Big Baby” Davis got by his man and finished in the paint. Davis ended the night with 16 points. Not the kind of defense you’d expect from a team hoping to make a playoff run.
On offense, Phoenix was clearly intimidated by Dwight Howard in the middle. D12 almost single-handedly turned the Suns into a jump-shooting team. This was acceptable in the first quarter when Jared Dudley couldn’t miss a jumper, but it is the sole reason the Magic built a 22-point lead by the fourth quarter. The Suns couldn’t get their 3-point shooting going, couldn’t take care of the ball, and couldn’t finish at the rim. Not exactly a recipe for offensive success.
Gortat matched his lowest scoring total of the season, and Steve Nash had his lowest assist output since the second game of the season in Philadelphia with just two dimes. The only reason this game ended up as a 10-point loss instead of 25 was the play of the bench in the second half.
In the first half of the game, the Phoenix reserves yielded ground and allowed Orlando to extend its lead before halftime. Their second stint on the court, however, saw them slice Orlando’s lead from 22 to 11 with five minutes to play in the fourth. Their outstanding effort on both ends forced Magic coach Stan Van Gundy to put his starters back in to close the game out. Sebastian Telfair had one of his stronger performances of the season, as he scored 10 points, grabbed four boards, handed out three assists, and got two steals in 21 minutes of action.
The reserves played the entire fourth quarter. Matching Telfair’s effort and enthusiasm was Robin Lopez. Whereas teammate Marcin Gortat was hesitant against Orlando’s big number 12, Lopez played hard and wasn’t afraid to go at Howard on both ends of the floor. Robin ended the night with 14 points and eight rebounds in just 22 minutes. He has been efficient and playing well over the last few games and may very well earn himself some additional playing time if tonight’s game impacts Gortat’s confidence moving forward.
The only other point of encouragement from the Suns’ offense tonight was Channing Frye. Frye started off the game cold as ice and instead of continuing to shoot jumpers or shying away from his shot completely, he penetrated and got buckets inside. This is a part of his game that Channing needs to continue to develop and utilize. If he can make defenders respect his inside game and penetrating ability, he will no doubt see more open looks on the perimeter because defenders will be hesitant to sell out completely on their close out.
For the Suns, their second loss in Florida drops them below .500 after briefly surfacing above that mark with nine wins in 11 games. Phoenix will visit Indiana on Friday and Cleveland on Sunday. Those are just two of their 11 remaining road games. Phoenix will more than likely need to win six of those games to remain in playoff contention. To do so, however, the Suns will need a much better defensive effort than they got tonight from everyone on the roster.
Coach Alvin Gentry will no doubt send a staffer to Disney World to retrieve the Suns’ defense from lost and found. He might want to buy Marcin some Mickey ears as well. The big fella could use a pick-me-up after tonight’s game.