When the Orlando Magic embarked on their four-game road trip to the West Coast, it was said that the players would learn a lot about themselves and as a whole, they’d figure out where they stand vis-a-vis the rest of the NBA elite — the Los Angeles Lakers, the Miami Heat, the Boston Celtics, and the San Antonio Spurs.
After the Magic went 1-3 against the Portland Trail Blazers, Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Clippers, and Denver Nuggets, one thing has become clear.
Orlando isn’t an elite team or a championship contender.
Something is missing from the roster. Against the Blazers, the Magic couldn’t score if their lives depended on it. Against the Jazz, it was a lack of defense. Against the Clippers, after a brilliant first quarter against one of the worst teams in the league, complacency and consistency cropped up as ever-too-familiar issues.
Against the Nuggets? There was little to no defense present from Orlando but more importantly, there was a lack of mental toughness and fight that has plagued the roster since the season began. When the going got tough in the fourth quarter, the Magic wilted and displayed a body language that emitted negativity.
Denver was able to defeat Orlando by the score of 111-94 in a game that was close for 42 minutes. After Vince Carter made a three-pointer at the 6:05 mark of the fourth quarter to pull the Magic’s deficit to one point at 92-91, the Nuggets went on a 19-3 run to turn a competitive game into a blowout. Carmelo Anthony led the way for Denver, putting up 35 points and 11 rebounds. Anthony got plenty of support from his supporting cast, with five players for the Nuggets scoring in double-figures. Orlando was led by J.J. Redick, who had a career-high 29 points on 12 shots — an excellent performance. Dwight Howard finished with 21 points, 14 rebounds, and two blocks. Carter chipped in with 18 points. Unfortunately for the Magic, it was a three-man show offensively between Redick, Howard, and Carter. No one else for Orlando was able to make a significant impact on the game, at least on the offensive side of the ball. The defense?
That was a different story altogether.
Because Quentin Richardson and Mickael Pietrus were unable to play due to injuries, that forced Rashard Lewis and Carter to have the dual responsibility of slowing down Anthony. Needless to say, Anthony did whatever he wanted on offense and abused whoever stood in his way.
If it was Lewis, Anthony was too quick for him on the perimeter. If it was Carter, Anthony was too strong for him in the low post.
It was a merciless performance from Anthony and to be honest, there was nothing the Magic could do about it. With the two best perimeter defenders sitting in street clothes, Orlando was at Anthony’s mercy and he made them pay.
Yes, Denver got excellent contributions from their role players but it was Anthony that had his fingerprints all over this game.
As for the Magic, the offense was humming for three quarters due to a combination of great execution and porous defense from the Nuggets. Redick had a field day, partly due to his ability to score points in a variety of ways. Whether it was in pick and rolls, catch-and-shoot situations, screen and curls, it was a beautiful display from Redick and perfectly accentuated his growth as a player in the NBA. No longer is Redick a spot-up shooter; he’s a scorer. Big difference.
Howard was great, as usual. With Brandon Bass in the starting lineup at power forward and Marcin Gortat manning the position as well, Howard got a lot of his buckets in 3-out/2-in offensive sets. Righty and lefty hooks, as well as the occasional jumpshot and tip-in on offensive rebounds, were the main ingredients that parlayed into Howard’s 21-point performance offensively. Though it should be noted that Nene Hilario did an effective of pestering Howard at times.
All in all, Orlando’s loss accentuated everything that’s wrong with the team.
Jameer Nelson? Four points. There’s no question that, at his best, Nelson is an All-Star caliber point guard but unfortunately the issue of consistency is something that will always plague him. The irony is that Nelson’s greatest criticism — his passing ability — has been a strength for him this year. For Nelson, it’s his inability to score at will that has haunted him as the Magic have struggled.
Carter? Yeah, he had 18 points but he couldn’t get Orlando a basket when they needed it the most in the fourth quarter. Neither could Nelson. Want to know why the Magic continue to get bombarded with Gilbert Arenas rumors? Look no further than the performances of Nelson and Carter against Denver. It’s a valid criticism and the reason Orlando is a second tier team.
Lewis? For three seasons, Lewis was the consummate teammate and did everything he could to help the Magic win games. This year? Lewis’ performance has fallen off a cliff and he’s become the albatross everyone feared he’d be when he was offered a maximum contract during the offseason in 2008. Lewis’ decline as a player is another reason why Orlando isn’t as good as they should be.
Is this an overreaction? No, it’s not. It’s a harsh reality.
Is it time to panic? No, it’s not. It’s time to be honest.
Between now and February when the trade deadline nears, general manager Otis Smith is going to have to make one of the most important decisions of his career that could affect whether or not Howard continues his tenure with the Magic.
Howard is playing the best basketball of his career and the last thing that Smith can afford is to waste his prime.
Ask the Cleveland Cavaliers.