The Orlando Magic were able to defeat the New York Knicks by the score of 111-99 to extend their winning streak to four games. This was a game that went back-and-forth for three quarters before the Magic were able to take control in the fourth quarter, and come away with a double-digit victory. Orlando was led by a balanced attack, with five players scoring in double-figures. Dwight Howard continues his race towards the MVP award, even if he’s seen by many as a longshot to win it, as he finished with 33 points, 11 rebounds, and three blocks. The most impressive thing when looking at Howard’s box score wasn’t his point total or even shooting percentage, but his ability to go 11-for-13 from the free-throw line. Howard is already an efficient player by the nature of the types of shots he gets but when he’s making his free-throws, he becomes impossible to contain. The Knicks, especially Amar’e Stoudemire (committed three personal fouls in the fourth quarter trying to defend Howard), found out the hard way. Jameer Nelson had a strong performance with 19 points. Hedo Turkoglu contributed with 16 points, 11 rebounds, and four assists. Brandon Bass had 15 points and seven rebounds, while Jason Richardson chipped in with 12 points and six rebounds. With the win, the Magic inch closer to winning their 50th game of the regular season.
For most of the evening, Orlando was in a dogfight.
Despite the Magic doing an excellent job of taking care of the basketball in the first half, with only five turnovers, and Turkoglu, Nelson, Howard, and Bass taking turns doing damage offensively, they were down four points at halftime.
Because Orlando played with a lack of energy and effort on defense, and it started with Howard. Given that Howard is the anchor of the Magic defensively, it’s up to him to set the standard for his teammates. In the first and second quarters, Howard just wasn’t bringing it on defense like he usually does. The aggressiveness wasn’t there and Howard wasn’t making New York think twice of attacking the basket and getting easy buckets. Instead, the Knicks got plenty of points in the paint while complementing their inside game with three-point shooting. Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups, and Toney Douglas combined for six of New York’s nine three-pointers in the first half. Orlando wasn’t doing a good job of closing out and chasing them off the three-point line, and they paid the price.
And that’s a shame because Turkoglu, Nelson, Howard, and Bass were doing good on offense at different junctures of the first and second quarters. Nelson got off to a quick start, with three three-pointers in the first quarter. Turkoglu combined some shots where his feet were set and he was properly balanced — the type of attempts he should be taking with consistency — with an extremely difficult jumper or two that he was able to make. Bass was ferocious in attacking the rim, getting to the free-throw line a total of seven times in the first quarter and making up for the fact that his mid-range jumpshot wasn’t falling with regularity.
As for Howard, he was dominant. Not only in the first half but for the entire game.
The Magic ran numerous 3-out/2-in offensive sets for Howard and there was little the Knicks could do from preventing him to do whatever he wanted on the low block. Righty hooks, lefty hooks, with spin moves mixed in between, Howard was putting on a clinic offensively. In the second half, as New York made the decision to double-team Howard in the low post, he did a solid job of kicking the ball out to the perimeter and feeding the shooters for Orlando. A few times, Howard was able to connect with Turkoglu for three-pointers — the type of inside-out basketball that the Magic execute when they’re at their best. Needless to say, Howard played magnificently on offense and he was able to ratchet up his intensity on defense, in which his teammates followed suit. After allowing 59 points to the Knicks in the first half, they were held to 40 points in the second half. Stoudemire, especially, was a relative non-factor, shooting 6-for-20 from the field and being held to a season-low 13 points. Need a reason for those subpar numbers? Look no further than Howard and Bass.
If there was a turning point in the game, it came in the opening stages of the fourth quarter when Orlando was in the process of gaining firm control of the lead after jostling with New York during the third quarter for it. The Magic trotted out a 5-man unit of Gilbert Arenas, Jason Richardson, Quentin Richardson, Earl Clark, and Howard. Surprisingly enough, Arenas was the spark-plug as Orlando began to extend their lead in the period. On four possessions in a two minute span, Arenas made numerous positive plays. To start the sequence, Arenas executed a 1/4 pick and roll with Clark, attacked the basket, and drew the foul. Arenas made both free-throws. On the ensuing possession, Arenas led a fastbreak opportunity and was able to feed Jason Richardson, who was trailing on the play, for a wide-open three-point shot off the catch. After Arenas turned the ball over after that, he was able to come down on consecutive possessions and make jumpers as he executed 1/5 pick and rolls with Howard. Not only did Arenas finish with nine points on five field-goal attempts, but he was engaged on defense.
It was a solid night for Arenas.
Though the main story is still Howard.
It’s doubtful that Howard, unless he goes in a ridiculous tear for the remaining 14 games, wins the MVP award. At this point, as head coach Stan Van Gundy astutely pointed out before the game, it seems as if the majority of the mainstream media is ready to hand the Maurice Podoloff Trophy to Derrick Rose. And that’s a shame, because Howard would be benefitting from a number of circumstances that needed to be in his favor for him to be considered for the award. LeBron James, despite still being the best player in the NBA, has dealt with a numbers hit because he’s teamed up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. That’s opened the door for other candidates, including Howard, to be considered. But despite out-producing Rose when looking at linear metrics like adjusted plus/minus, statistical plus/minus, PER, WARP, and other stats, Howard is probably going to be passed over.
A minor travesty.
Howard has never been better.