If the game against the Chicago Bulls may have put the nail in the coffin for a team considered by many as part of the elite in the NBA, consider the case closed now as the Memphis Grizzlies were able to defeat the Orlando Magic by the score of 100-97. To be rather blunt, stupidity almost cost the Magic a chance to tie the game at the end of regulation. With 5.5 seconds left in the fourth quarter, Mike Conley headed to the foul throw line after Jason Richardson fouled him following a missed three-pointer by Hedo Turkoglu that could have given Orlando the lead. But before Conley went to shoot his free-throws, Dwight Howard – inexplicably — mouthed off at one of the officials and earned a technical foul at the most inopportune time. This is the franchise player for the Magic, and he was unable to keep his mouth shut at a crucial moment in time. Fortunately for Howard, after Zach Randolph made the technical free-throw to give the Grizzlies a two-point lead, Conley missed one of two free-throws. That gave Orlando one last chance at tying things up, but Richardson missed a 30-foot three-point heave with time expiring. Another loss for the Magic and it’s becoming clear that this is a flawed team that has little chance of competing for the Eastern Conference title in their current form. Memphis was led by a balanced attack, six players scored in double-figures. However, the player of the game for the Grizzlies was Conley, who finished with 26 points and 11 assists — first time in his career that he’s been able to amass more than 20 points and 10 assists in the same game. Orlando was led by a balanced attack as well, with six players scoring in double-figures. Howard finished with 25 points, 14 rebounds, two steals, and two blocks but also had seven turnovers. Also, Brandon Bass left in the third quarter with a sprained right ankle.
Where to start?
If Conley putting up 26 points and 11 assists isn’t another example that the Magic’s perimeter defense is a problem, then who knows. Jameer Nelson and Gilbert Arenas were unable to prevent Conley from dribble penetrating into the lane and breaking down Orlando defensively. And when Conley wasn’t too busy trying to attack the basket or lure defenders to him in the paint, he had a number of wide-open looks from the three-point line. Poor recovery from Nelson and Arenas is the reason that Conley went 4-of-6 from three-point range.
Of course, that’s not the only problem the Magic have on defense. When Howard is sitting on the bench, Orlando has no presence in the interior defensively. Memphis, like other teams in recent weeks, have been able to run roughshod at Bass and Ryan Anderson because they know there’s little they can do to protect the rim due to a lack of size (Bass) and athleticism (Anderson). Not sure what will happen at the trade deadline but general manager Otis Smith has to acquire a competent back-up center. This is a fatal flaw for the Magic right now.
Perimeter defense and a lack of a back-up center is killing Orlando.
Despite trailing by as many as 12 points, the Magic deserve credit for fighting back and not giving up. With Bass sidelined to an injury, head coach Stan Van Gundy opted to go with a 5-man combination of Arenas-Richardson-Turkoglu-Anderson-Howard in the fourth quarter. Surprisingly enough, more so because of Arenas’ unpredictability, the lineup worked. Arenas was spectacular, able to exploit Greivis Vasquez on the low block for a few buckets as well, as make some nice passes to Howard for a few dunks. Arenas’ energy level was excellent.
Too little, too late though.
It’s also worth noting that, aside from his technical foul, Howard made another miscue late in the fourth quarter when Orlando was trailing by the score of 98-96 with 1:07 left. Howard committed an offensive foul, specifically a moving screen, that robbed the Magic a chance to either tie or take the lead. Howard is a great player but dumb mistakes by him were costly.
This isn’t the single-out Howard by any means, but he was in the middle of some possessions that could have turned out better for Orlando. As such, the Magic have another loss and now have to face the prospect of possibly missing Bass for an extended amount of time. Orlando’s frontcourt is already thin, so it’ll be interesting to see if Bass can heal in time for Thursday’s game against the Miami Heat. If not, well, the Magic have other issues that they have to take care of.