Can you smell it?
Do you feel it?
The NBA is back in business after a full slate of pre-season games, headlined by the SuperFriends, were completed earlier tonight.
And for the Orlando Magic, their quest towards a championship began at a little-known city in Texas named Hidalgo. So far, so good, as the Magic were able to defeat the Houston Rockets by the score of 97-88. Dwight Howard led the way for Orlando with a dominating performance, finishing the game with 19 points, 12 rebounds, and three blocks. Vince Carter and Rashard Lewis chipped in with 14 and 12 points, respectively. Courtney Lee, a former rookie for the Magic, had 12 points for the Rockets in a losing effort.
There’s a few things that stood out from this matchup.
First, even though it was a pre-season game and sometimes he faced off against a Yao Ming that is not in tip-top form, Howard looked awesome. In the first quarter, Orlando ran a lot of 4-out/1-in offensive sets for Howard to establish his presence in the low post. Needless to say, watching Howard go to work on the low block was a beauty to behold. Howard showed no hesitation with his moves and it created fluid, captivating sequences on offense that left Magic fans drooling. On one possession, Howard executed a spin move on Yao and finished with a righty hook shot. On the very next possession, Howard jab-stepped Yao and made a bank shot that would make Tim Duncan proud. A few minutes later, Howard made another jumper.
But Howard’s highlight of the night was when he faced up Yao on the left block and made a reverse layup after making a decisive choice to go baseline. Howard drew a foul on the play and missed the free-throw, but the most impressive thing from that sequence was that Howard immediately engaged in a move. On a lesser but important note, whenever Howard was matched up against Yao offensively, he made a concerted effort to use his finesse rather than his strength to score. This is the type of maturity that Howard displayed against Kendrick Perkins in the 2010 NBA Eastern Conference Finals versus the Boston Celtics. For so long, Howard would try to bulldoze his way against the likes of Yao and Perkins in the post, but now he’s learning to make consistent use of his über-athleticism. It’s working.
Oh, and Howard’s footwork? It’s much improved.
It’s one game but if Howard is able to display this type of versatility on offense with no fear of failure (Hakeem Olajuwon has taught Howard to push past that barrier), the rest of the league had better watch out.
Second, as promised, Lewis spent a lot of time at small forward and the results were a mixed bag. There’s no question that Lewis can score at the small forward position, as he was able to do in the second quarter when he put up seven points in a four-minute stretch while at that spot. During that timeframe, Lewis was able to nail a fadeaway jumper against Chase Budinger, make a three-pointer in the corner, and connect on a layup after schooling Shane Battier in the post by executing a reverse pivot. Lewis is a gifted player on the low block and this is not a new revelation.
But Lewis had trouble defending the likes of Budinger and Battier at small forward, given that they’re quicker than him on the perimeter. That’s the reality of the situation and it’ll be interesting to see how head coach Stan Van Gundy deals with Lewis’ lack of lateral quickness. Does Van Gundy bite the bullet? It might come down to whether or not Lewis and Ryan Anderson or Brandon Bass produce a net gain when they’re at the forward positions. Lewis had a chance to play alongside Anderson and Bass, and the arrangement worked out okay with both players. For Bass in particular, his defense is a work in progress but it’s getting better. Nevertheless, Lewis got plenty of chances to exploit his advantages in the low post and did well.
Lewis has to play at the small forward position, but there are kinks to work out.
Third and lastly, one thing that was noticeable from the Magic was that they posted up a lot on offense. This is not bad, mind you. It was weird, but refreshing. Orlando still attempted 28 three-pointers in the game (made eight of them) so it wasn’t like they abandoned their offensive identity, but it was a pleasant surprise to see not only Howard post up but Quentin Richardson, Lewis, Carter, and Bass join in on the fun. Each player took their turns with their backs to the basket more than once and had success. Richardson, in particular, is the new kid on the block so some people may not know this but he’s adept at posting up because of his ability to use his strength — like Carter — to score on smaller perimeter players. Again, it’s one game but that was an interesting to see against Houston.
It remains to be seen whether or not the Magic will post up as much as they did against the Rockets, but it certainly wouldn’t be a bad idea as long as there are favorable matchups on the court. It’s been stated many times in the past but Lewis’ and Carter’s ability to execute on the low block is something that needs to be featured more in Orlando’s offense. Lewis, in particular, has been underutilized at times and it’s puzzling because he has an unusual height advantage at 6’10” and can shoot over anyone that is guarding him. Maybe this year will be different.
Oh, and it’s worth noting that Carter looked noticeably quicker on his feet. There’s been talk that Carter trimmed some body fat to improve his conditioning and it was clear when he was on the floor that he’s looking spry, especially on defense.
That is all.
For the Magic, it’s on to the next one.