In front of a nationally televised audience and sellout crowd at the Amway Center, the Orlando Magic were able to defeat the Oklahoma City Thunder by the score of 111-88. The Thunder were without their newly-acquired players — Nate Robinson, Kendrick Perkins, and Nazr Mohammed — and the Magic took full advantage of the situation. Granted, it’s doubtful any three of those role players would have made a difference in the game but it’s worth pointing out. Dwight Howard continues his chase for the MVP award, finishing with 40 points, 15 rebounds, six blocks, and two steals. This is Howard’s fourth straight game of scoring 30 points or more, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that we are witnessing a player that is starting to play to his full potential. It’s hard to imagine Howard could play any better than he did against Oklahoma City, where he dominated on both ends of the floor. These are the type of performances reserved for players like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and others — Howard is starting to make them look routine. Likewise, it appears that Howard’s teammates heeded his word about playing hard. The energy and effort, especially on defense, was there. Jason Richardson chipped in with 17 points, six rebounds, and four assists. Jameer Nelson had 14 points, nine rebounds, and five assists. J.J. Redick contributed with 16 points and four rebounds.
If Orlando wants to beat the best teams in the NBA, last night was an example of what they need to do to accomplish just that. The Magic’s defense was absolutely smothering, not allowing the Thunder to get good looks on the perimeter or in the paint with any consistency. For the evening, Oklahoma City shot 33.3 percent from the field and given that they hover around the top five in offensive efficiency, that’s an excellent percentage to hold them at for Orlando. The only thing that was keeping the Thunder in the game was their three-point shooting and ability to get to the free-throw line with alacrity. With Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City has two of the best players in the league that get to the charity stripe and make free throws so that wasn’t much of a surprise to see. What was surprising was Daequan Cook, a player that’s not usually in head coach Scott Brooks’ rotation, coming off the bench to score 15 points on 4-of-9 shooting from three-point range. Cook making threes wasn’t shocking, given that he’s a former three-point contest shooting champion (2009) but the situation was out of the ordinary, that’s for sure. With Cook and James Harden connecting from downtown, that kept the Thunder in striking distance. However, the Magic went on an 18-4 run in the middle of the fourth quarter that finally put the game out of reach.
It must be maddening for head coach Stan Van Gundy to witness this because, deep down, he knows that Orlando is capable of putting forth this effort if they put their minds to it.
Nelson gets a lot of flack from Magic fans, but his ability to keep Westbrook in front of him and force him to settle for jumpers was one of the keys to the game. Accomplishing such a task is nearly impossible, given that Westbrook is one of the most explosive players in the league, as well as one of the quickest, but Nelson was up to the challenge. Of course, it can’t be understated that having Howard in the middle of the lane as a deterrent helped too.
Durant was 7-of-22 shooting from the field and a reason for some of his struggles came in the form of Earl Clark. During the game, Van Gundy made the choice to place Clark on Durant because he has the athleticism, length, and wingspan to bother him. Even though Durant bested Clark on a few occasions, which is going to happen since he’s an elite scorer, he had to work for his points. Clark’s on-ball defense wasn’t the only thing that was impressive. Clark’s weak-side defense was superb. There was one sequence in particular that stands out. On one possession in the third quarter, Nick Collison attacked the basket for a dunk but at the very last second, Clark was able to block him from behind. From there, Clark raced down the floor on the fast break and was able to get the offensive rebound after Richardson missed the layup. Clark got fouled but missed his free-throws. That being said, the heart and hustle that was displayed on that play is indicative of the energy that’s been missing from Orlando. This isn’t to paint Clark as a savant because he didn’t do much offensively against Oklahoma City, but Van Gundy needs to find minutes for the kid because he doesn’t quit on the court. And even though Clark is still learning the nuances of being an effective NBA defender, he’s an asset that can be used against the best players in the league. That’s something worth considering for Van Gundy moving forward.
As for Howard, he was special. Nick Collison is one of the better defenders in the NBA but he had no chance against Howard. Maybe things would have been a little different had the Thunder trotted out Perkins and Mohammed, but they didn’t and they were punished for it. Howard scored at will. Post ups, pick and rolls, offensive rebounds, alley-oop lobs. The only weapon in Howard’s arsenal that didn’t make an appearance was his mid-range jumper but that wasn’t needed. Howard was wise not to shoot jumpers, given that there was little that Collison could do from stopping him from scoring in the lane nearly every time he put up a shot. It was a ruthless, relentless, and efficient outing for Howard. Television analyst Hubie Brown had difficulty containing his excitement for Howard, given that this is the complete package he, and everyone else, has been waiting to see.
That’s why, even though the Magic shouldn’t be considered as an elite team and championship contender for their inability to produce results like these with any consistency, they are a threat because of Howard’s brilliance.