The Orlando Magic were able to defeat the Phoenix Suns by the score of 111-88 in a reunion, of sorts, between two teams that made a blockbuster trade on December 18. Also, the Magic were able to win a game in Phoenix for the first time since 2001, taking advantage of Steve Nash’s absence due to an injury (Channing Frye was out as well), though it’s worth noting that Aaron Brooks — his replacement — did a good job at the point guard position. Orlando was led by a balanced attack, as seven players scored in double-figures. Dwight Howard was dominant on both ends of the floor, finishing with 26 points, 15 rebounds, and five blocks. The Suns started Robin Lopez at center but that matchup didn’t last long, as Howard destroyed him on the low block. As such, Marcin Gortat came in and did the best he could to slow down his former teammate in the post. Gortat’s defense was great, at times, but Howard still got the best of him on numerous occasions. Brandon Bass chipped in with 17 points, while Gilbert Arenas had 16 points, Jameer Nelson had 14 points, Hedo Turkoglu had 13 points, Ryan Anderson had 11 points, and Jason Richardson had 10 points. On the opposite end, only Gortat looked like a player that the Magic were missing, as he played with confidence and showed an expansive repertoire offensively that was previously shackled by his responsibilities serving as Howard’s back-up, such as rebounding, playing defense, etc.
This game was a tell of two halves.
In the first half, Orlando showed little interest in putting forth an immense amount of energy and effort defensively. Sure, Howard had four blocks in the first quarter but even he wasn’t playing defense correctly. Brooks did whatever he wanted in pick and roll situations because Howard was giving him too much space on the perimeter. After Brooks would turn the corner on a pick set by Gortat, for example, Howard would back away in hopes of sealing the lane. It’s understandable, given that Gortat is a player that can finish in pick and roll situations while Brooks likes to take advantage of his quickness and attack the rim. But that’s a case where Howard needed to trust his teammates to provide help defense if necessary.
That was one issue.
Another issue is that when Howard is sitting on the bench, like he routinely does in the second quarter, the Magic’s interior defense disappears. That was the case against Phoenix, as they were able to get into the paint with ease when Howard was not playing and being the anchor defensively.
Fortunately for Orlando, both problems were fixed in the second half. Howard began to crowd Brooks in pick and rolls, not allowing him much space to create off the dribble. That single-handedly neutered the Suns’ pick and roll attack, as they had a lot of problems creating things on offense. Likewise, when Howard was off the floor, players like Anderson did a better job of playing to their strengths on defense and shutting down the lane. Anderson isn’t going to block shots like Howard, but he’s adept at drawing charges. And that’s okay. It works.
There were times when Phoenix had silly turnovers and were unable to finish at the basket in the third and fourth quarters. But, for the most part, the Magic deserve a ton of credit for ratcheting up their efforts on defense. That was the difference in the game, given that Orlando had little trouble scoring, even without the presence of J.J. Redick which forced head coach Stan Van Gundy to utilize Arenas at the shooting guard position quite a bit.
On the topic of Arenas, it’s worth mentioning that he’s starting to get into a groove offensively. No, the Suns’ defense isn’t very good so that should be taken into account but 16 points on 10 shots for Arenas is great. There was a sequence in the fourth quarter when Arenas was isolated against Lopez and he was able to break him down off the dribble for a step-back jumper. Arenas’ athleticism, what remains of it, comes and goes but that was an example that he still has it in him to create for himself on offense when he needs to.
If Orlando can count on Arenas to, at minimum, score more points than the amount of field goal attempts he accumulates, that’s a small victory. Arenas’ spot-up shooting is solid, while he has the strength to post up on smaller point guards when the matchup presents itself. If the Magic can put Arenas in positions to succeed, then there’s still a chance he can be the dynamic scorer off the bench that general manager Otis Smith hoped he’d be when he acquired him.