Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
It’s hard out here for Orlando Magic fans.
The Magic lost in the first round of the 2011 NBA Playoffs to the Atlanta Hawks.
There’s so much uncertainty surrounding Dwight Howard‘s future.
And general manager Otis Smith‘s continued quest to to find the right combination of players to surround Howard in hopes of being an elite team and championship contender before it’s too late is a difficult one, given that he’s dealing with the nearly unmovable contracts of Gilbert Arenas and Hedo Turkoglu as well as a shallow talent pool.
To be honest, the Magic are reaching a crossroads as a franchise and there’s not a lot of positive things to talk about right now.
However, it never hurts to look back and appreciate the MVP-caliber season that Dwight Howard had for Orlando, especially in the playoffs where he elevated his level of play to transcendent heights.
Despite being undermined by the lack of consistent contributions from his supporting cast, Howard was a man amongst boys against the Hawks. That description couldn’t be more apt than in Game 1 when Howard had 46 points and 19 rebounds. Howard’s point total was a playoff career-high and it also tied the franchise playoff record for most points scored in a game — Tracy McGrady had 46 points against the Detroit Pistons in a game during the first round of the 2003 NBA Playoffs. The 31 points that Howard scored in the first half was a franchise playoff record for most points scored in a half. Needless to say, Howard had a record-setting night.
Even though the Magic lost Game 1 despite Howard’s herculean efforts, it’s worth taking a look back at his performance because it’s a perfect example of the evolution he’s undertaken on offense. Everyone and their mother talked about Howard working out with Hakeem Olajuwon during the offseason, and Game 1 was an example of that hard work paying off. Rather than track every single basket offensively for Howard, let’s take a look at his first half output.
To set the stage, head coach Larry Drew made the calculated decision to defend Howard one-on-one, in hopes of better containing the perimeter shooters for Orlando. Obviously the strategy paid off as the Hawks won the series but not before Howard was a one-man wrecking crew and laid waste to everything in his path.
- [first quarter, 11:41] Howard receives an entry pass from Jason Richardson in the paint and, admittedly, is a little far away from his comfort zone in the paint. And Jason Collins did an excellent job of contesting Howard’s left hook. Yet Howard makes the hook shot anyway.
- [first quarter, 9:02] On this possession, the Magic execute a 3-out/2-in offensive set with Howard on the left block. Howard faces up Collins, surveying Atlanta’s defense, then he engages in his post move. Josh Smith digs down as Howard executes a spin move from the middle of the lane to the baseline, but he’s unable to force a loose ball. As a result, Howard gets an easy layup and the foul. Collins tried to strip Howard as he went up for the shot, but to no avail.
- [first quarter, 3:35] Jameer Nelson attacked the basket in a 1/5 pick and roll with Howard, but he missed the layup attempt. However, with Zaza Pachulia helping Kirk Hinrich contest the shot, Howard is able to sneak in underneath and grab the offensive rebound. Immediately, Howard goes up for the layup and draws contact from Pachulia. A foul is called as Howard makes the shot. There’s not much Pachulia could have done to stop that.
- [first quarter, 2:08] Another 3-out/2-in offensive set for the Magic. Etan Thomas is the unlucky foe trying to contain Howard, but to no avail. Howard faces up Thomas on the left block and goes baseline for a reverse dunk. This is a classic case of Howard’s speed and athleticism overwhelming his defender.
- [second quarter, 10:40] At this point, Orlando is feeding the basketball to Howard almost exclusively on 3-out/2-in offensive sets. Howard reposts after receiving the entry pass from Arenas, and makes the lefty hook from the right block on Josh Powell.
- [second quarter, 9:27] Arenas runs a 1/5 pick and roll with Howard but misses the jumper from the elbow. Fortunately for Arenas, Howard is there to clean up the mess with a put-back dunk.
- [second quarter, 8:26] Howard gets deep post position in the paint on Powell and makes the lefty hook, plus he draws the foul as he gets hit on the arm. Arenas deserves a lot of credit on this play because he immediately gave Howard the basketball when he was in the lane. Too many times a player for the Magic will be too late in giving Howard the ball when he has excellent post position, and thus create a three-second violation. But not this time.
- [second quarter, 5:46] Thomas is the unlucky soul that has to deal with Howard on this possession and it isn’t pretty for him. Howard sets up on the right block in a 3-out/2-in offensive set and quickly goes to work. Howard dribbles twice, then spins around and goes baseline. Howard’s strength is too much for Thomas to bare and he’s able to dunk the basketball.
- [second quarter, 5:16] On the ensuing possession, Thomas gets a taste of Howard’s speed and athleticism. It’s another 3-out/2-in offensive set for Orlando but this time Turkoglu connects with Howard for an alley-oop dunk.
- [second quarter, 2:57] It’s becoming increasingly clear that Howard is in a zone right now on offense and the Magic do everything to feed him the ball. Once again it’s a 3-out/2-in offensive set. This time, though, Howard faces up Powell on the right block and goes baseline. Powell offers some resistance defensively, but Howard is able to overcome that and spin under the basket for a layup plus the foul. That’s 27 points and counting for Howard.
- [second quarter, 1:32] Orlando continues to struggle offensively outside of Howard, with J.J. Redick setting the example by missing a runner along the baseline. But Howard is able to grab the offensive rebound for another dunk and foul.
Aside from Howard shooting 11-of-16 from the field, he also went 9-of-11 from the free-throw line for a total of 31 points in the first half.
For those that are keeping their calculators handy, that’s a whopping True Shooting percentage of 70.4 percent with a usage rate of 44.5 percent. In other words, Howard used up nearly half of Orlando’s possessions and produced at an obscene level.
Even though Game 1 was eventually a loss, there’s no question that Howard did everything in his power to will his teammates to victory. While Howard’s offense is being examined in this instance, that shouldn’t overlook his dominating presence defensively. That being said, Howard — aside from shooting a mid-range jumper — showed his entire repertoire offensively.
Not a lot of players can blend efficiency with dominance on offense but Howard was more than capable of doing just that.
Howard has had a lot of dominant performances in his career and to this day, his 40-point, 14-rebound tour de force against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 6 of the 2009 NBA Eastern Conference Finals probably remains his best game with Orlando, given the circumstances. It can be argued that Howard had a more impressive game statistically against Atlanta, and he did, plus he set a few franchise playoff records in the process. Plus, Howard has had some excellent outings during this year’s regular season and in regular seasons past. But it’s hard to trump Howard closing out the Cavaliers to help the Magic advance to the Finals.
That being said, context aside, Howard was special against the Hawks.