On Christmas Day, the Oklahoma City Thunder were able to defeat the Orlando Magic by the score of 97-89 to kick off the 2011-2012 NBA season. Strong bench play as well as the two-headed monster of Kevin Durant and James Harden were the keys to victory for the Thunder. The Magic actually held the lead for most of the first quarter. But a late surge sparked by Harden tilted the score in Oklahoma City’s favor at the tail end of the period and they never looked back. Orlando was able to keep things relatively close for the remainder of the game. However, the Thunder were always able to keep the Magic at a distance whenever things started to get interesting. Ryan Anderson, starting at power forward on opening night, had a solid performance with 25 points on 9-of-17 shooting from the field (6-of-12 from three-point range), 10 rebounds, and two assists. Jameer Nelson finished with 18 points and six assists. Dwight Howard was underwhelming, finishing with 11 points, 15 rebounds, and two blocks, not making much of an impact on both sides of the floor at all. Durant led the way for Oklahoma City with a game-high 30 points, six assists, five rebounds, and two steals while James Harden chipped in with 19 points (10-of-12 from the free-throw line), six rebounds, and three assists.
In a way, this experience was beneficial for Orlando.
The Thunder are the favorites to win the Western Conference this season, so it was good to see where the Magic stood in comparison. And that’s where the good news ends because Orlando just doesn’t compare to Oklahoma City. The Thunder have the look and feel of an elite team and championship contender, while the Magic do not. This was evident in several ways.
Let’s start with Kevin Durant. It’s cliche but every elite team in the league has a go-to scorer. The Miami Heat have LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. The Chicago Bulls have Derrick Rose. Oklahoma City has Durant. In this role of go-to scorer, this player can get you a basket anyplace, anywhere, anytime. That’s what Durant did against Orlando and they couldn’t stop him whatsoever. Hedo Turkoglu had the primary assignment on Durant and it was a one-sided matchup. Turkoglu could do nothing to stop Durant from doing whatever he wanted on offense.
For example, on one possession in the second quarter, Durant used his quickness to blow by Turkoglu for a dunk. Exacerbating the problem was that Howard was late to rotate to the weak-side in an attempt to stop Durant. On another possession in the third quarter, Durant posted up Turkoglu on the right block, faced him up, attacked the rim, and made the layup while drawing the foul on Howard who was — once again — late in rotating over to help. Basically, Durant did whatever he wanted offensively and even in the instances in which Turkoglu did everything correctly on defense, it didn’t matter.
On the flipside, the Magic did not have anyone that could do the same things as Durant. This is nothing new. Orlando’s glaring weakness is their lack of a dynamic shot creator on the perimeter. The Magic were able to put points on the board when they ran their offensive sets. When Nelson was aggressive in the pick-and-roll, Orlando usually came away with points. When Nelson wasn’t aggressive or not in the game, points were hard to come by for the Magic.
Although Nelson played well, displaying that much-needed aggression on offense, he still settled too much at times. A perfect example came in the third quarter when Orlando was mounting a run and cutting into the Thunder’s double-digit lead. Nelson had the ball in transition following a turnover from Oklahoma City. Nelson could have taken a wide-open three-pointer on this particular fast break, which is a good shot for him since he’s a good three-point shooter. Yet for whatever reason, Nelson passed it to Turkoglu on his right side. Turkoglu passed it back to Nelson. Then Nelson passed up another open three-pointer. Finally, Nelson passed it to Anderson on his left side. Anderson promptly missed the three-point shot. Given that Nelson already had eight points in the period at that point in time, he should have given himself the green light to shoot the basketball. But of course, in the midst of brilliance, Nelson does this. Nelson tries to be too much of a playmaker rather than be a scorer when the situation asks for the latter.
That was a critical juncture in the game, too, because the Magic were chipping away at the Thunder’s lead. In that sequence in which Nelson was playing hot potato with the ball on the fast break, Orlando was down by 10 points but they squandered that possession. Two minutes later, Thabo Sefolosha made a corner three-pointer from the right side of the floor to increase the lead to 13 points, Durant made a jumper a few possessions after that, and Oklahoma City quelled the rally.
Another difference in the game was bench play. The Thunder’s bench is steady and efficient, and it starts with Harden.
Harden was superb for Oklahoma City, astutely maneuvering around screens on offense to create for himself and others. Harden was aggressive in drawing contact either at the rim or on the perimeter. Harden’s 12 free-throw attempts showed the fruits of his labor.
And players like Nick Collison, Eric Maynor, and Daequan Cook were solid. When the benches for the Magic and Thunder were doing battle, the difference between the two teams was night and day. Harden led the attack for Oklahoma City, while Orlando was plagued by poor play from Chris Duhon and Glen Davis. Only J.J. Redick was decent coming off the bench for the Magic. Duhon’s issue continues to be his bad habit of passsing the basketball while not looking at the target he’s throwing to, throwing it in traffic, or throwing it while jumping in the air. Duhon was terrible in tonight’s game and it’ll be interesting to see how long he lasts as Orlando’s back-up point guard before head coach Stan Van Gundy decides to use Larry Hughes as a stopgap solution. As for Davis, he missed a number of mid-range jumpshots (this should come as no surprise) and he struggled to finish at the rim. Foul trouble in the first half didn’t help his cause either.
Lastly, Howard was a non-factor in the game. So was Jason Richardson for that matter. Surprisingly enough, this was a winnable game for the Magic. Even though the Thunder were led by Durant and Harden and most of the role players did their jobs, Russell Westbrook didn’t make much of an impact. Nelson played Westbrook to a stalemate in some respects. But Howard and Richardson did little to nothing and Orlando lost. Granted, Oklahoma City didn’t make life easy for Howard offensively but Richardson just missed shots. Richardson had plenty of good looks on the perimeter but he couldn’t make anything. The problem is that if Richardson isn’t making shots, he becomes a liability on the court because he brings nothing else to the table on offense to compensate and he’s porous defensively. If Howard and Richardson played more to their standards, Orlando could have won. There’s no doubt about that at all.
The Magic’s margin for error is small, though, and that’s why they lost.