28 April 2007

So Long, Farewell: Pistons 97, Magic 93

Our season is over.

Detroit came into our house and had an answer for everything we tried, defeating us by a final score of 97 to 93. Detroit swept the four-game season series, then the four games in this first-round series, giving it an 8-game winning streak over this Magic team. You might say they have our number.

I started write about how encouraging this loss is, at least in the sense that we played our best game of the series, but then I realized what a load of crap that was. We lost four games to a team we had already lost four games to. Can we really learn anything from that? I noticed that Darko played better in this series than he did in the regular season, but apart from that, I don't know what came up in this series that didn't come up in the regular season.

  • We shoot free throws poorly (63.1% today, 57.9% for the series).
  • Dwight is careless with the ball (17 turnovers in 4 games).
  • Hedo is the streakiest shooter in the NBA (66.7% shooting in games 1 and 2, 30.4% shooting in games 3 and 4).
  • Jameer is a serious liability on the defensive end.
The Magic's coaching staff should have counted on that last point, especially late in today's game. I give Brian Hill credit for taking Jameer off of Chauncey Billups late in the game, but that doesn't change the fact that Nelson was still in the game and having to play defense. Rip Hamilton abused Nelson down the stretch, hitting an 11-footer over Nelson to put the Pistons up 87-86, then hitting a 9-footer over Nelson a minute later to give the Pistons a 91-88 advantage. From a coaching perspective, it makes sense to play Nelson late because he is one of the team's captains. However, from a common sense standpoint, it's indefensible to leave him out there in an elimination game to guard an All-Star shooting guard who has 8 inches of height and 5 years of experience on him. Essentially, Brian Hill was using a flyswatter to contend with a dagger. Not the wisest move.

Perhaps the Magic can be encouraged by their solid play today, but that won't change the truth: they were swept out of the playoffs on their home floor by a superior team, one against which they are winless in eight tries this season. We enter the summer on a four-game losing streak and with our roster in flux - Darko Milicic, Grant Hill, and Travis Diener may not return next season. The same could be said for head coach Brian Hill.

We all knew it would end sometime, Magic fans. We just hoped it would end on a less sour note.

Notes From Halftime of Game 4

Well, there goes the wind out of our sails. Again.

It's bad enough that we blew a 37-27 lead with 7:22 left in the half. But then we had to let Detroit make yet another buzzer-beating shot at the end of a quarter. They've done that countless times throughout this series, and they did it again here. Grant Hill made two free throws to put the Magic ahead by 46-45 with :03 remaining in the half. The Pistons were prepared, having called a 20-second timeout in between Hill's free throws to set up a play. Rasheed Wallace threw a long bomb to Rip Hamilton, who caught the ball at halfcourt, took a few steps toward the basket, and laid the ball in as the buzzer sounded.

If this were the first time the Pistons had made that sort of shot in this series, I'd say "Incredible. Unbelievable." But at this point, with this team, I've come to expect end-of-quarter meltdowns.

But the meltdown didn't start there. As I mentioned, we held a 10-point lead with 7:22 remaining. Here's how the rest of the quarter played out.

  • ORL - Trevor Ariza misses jumper
  • DET - Carlos Delfino makes jumper (29-37)
  • ORL - Darko Milicic bad pass turnover
  • DET - Carlos Delfino makes two free throws (31-37)
  • ORL - J.J. Redick lost ball turnover
  • DET - Chris Webber makes layup (33-37)
  • ORL - Darko Milicic misses jumper
  • ORL - Trevor Ariza misses layup
  • DET - Carlos Delfino makes jumper (35-37)
At this point, Brian Hill called a timeout; I guess he was displeased with his team giving up 8 straight points, 6 of which were scored by a mediocre role player. The Magic didn't fare much better after the timeout, though.

  • ORL - Hedo Turkoglu misses jumper
  • DET - Flip Murray makes a free throw (36-37)
  • ORL - Grant Hill bad pass turnover
  • ORL - Hedo Turkoglu bad pass turnover
  • DET - Carlos Delfino makes layup (38-37)
  • ORL - Darko Milicic makes two free throws (38-39)
  • ORL - Grant Hill lost ball turnover
  • DET - Chris Webber makes dunk (40-39)
  • ORL - Dwight Howard misses layup
  • DET - Chauncey Billups makes three-point jumper (43-39)
  • ORL - Hedo Turkoglu misses jumper
  • ORL - Darko Milicic misses tip-in
  • ORL - Dwight Howard makes layup (43-41)
  • ORL - Grant Hill makes layup (43-43)
  • DET - Rasheed Wallace makes dunk (45-43)
  • ORL - Grant Hill makes a free throw (45-44)
At this point, Grant Hill made the two free throws to which I alluded earlier, then Hamilton countered with his backbreaking layup.

I'm encouraged because we were up so large on Detroit early, but I'm discouraged because the Pistons played terribly and still hold a one-point lead.

I hope those brooms are put away.

26 April 2007

Code Blue, Indeed: Pistons 93, Magic 77

Our first home playoff game in four years featured the promotion "Code Blue." It makes sense, given our team's color palette, but it also rates about a 9 on the Unintentional Comedy Scale. Code Blue is used in hospitals to indicate that a patient's heart has stopped beating - it signals "a real or suspected imminent loss of life," according to You Know Who.

"Real imminent loss of life" seems to describe our predicament now that we're down 3-0 in a best-of-seven series. Including the regular season, we're 0-7 against Detroit in 2006/2007. If that isn't an indication of which team is better, I don't know what is.

The most frustrating thing about this whole series has been the fact that we've played well throughout. The missed free throws and turnovers that plagued us in Game 1 seem to have been corrected. Detroit just has an answer for everything we throw at them. They're like BoBo dolls or something.

The point at which the season flashed before my eyes came just before halftime. With the Magic down by one after a Jameer Nelson jumper, Tayshaun Prince responded for Detroit with a jumper of his own with :02 to play in the half. ALL THE MAGIC HAD TO DO WAS INBOUND THE BALL. Hedo Turkoglu threw the inbounds pass too far for a streaking Jameer Nelson to catch up with it. Prince stole the ball, then chucked it to Chauncey Billups, who coolly nailed a three-pointer as the buzzer sounded. The Pistons scored 5 points in the span of two seconds to take a 6-point lead, not to mention TONS of momentum, into the locker room.

We were just picked apart tonight. We played hard, but the Pistons played harder. They outrebounded us, forced us into more turnovers, and had icewater in their veins the whole night. There isn't much left for us to try. Were Jameer to have a crappy game tonight, I'd expect to see Keyon Dooling start for him in Game 4. However, Jameer came out of nowhere to score 27 points on 10-of-19 shooting, so it doesn't make much sense to bench him after that performance.

So do we bench Hedo Turkoglu and Grant Hill, who both played miserably tonight? Not a chance. They both had bad nights, but they aren't the reason we lost the game. While it's true that tonight's game would have been much closer had those maintained their high level of play from the first two games of the series, there's no way to determine for sure if that would have lead to a win.

Not everything was bad, though. Jameer broke out of his slump, Darko played hard and well, and we executed our offense effectively. We were just outplayed by a better team. That's what it comes down to.

At this point, Magic fans, we have nothing to lose except the series. I hope we play passionate, inspired basketball on Saturday in Game 4, which Brian Hill called "a pride game" for us. Speaking of pride, it disgusts me that some fans left with 5:59 to play and the Magic down 11. It sends the message to the team that it's more important for the "fans" to get home early so they can catch C.S.I. on their TiVo than it is for them to support their team. I could almost understand leaving if the Magic were down 20, or were shooting 28%, or had not played competitively the whole night. But this team was still in the game. Indefensible.

I hope the O-Rena sells out for Game 4, and I hope we stay alive to force a Game 5 in Auburn Hills. For now, I suppose, the Magic are just happy to be in the playoffs, although they can't be happy with their current standing.

Central Nervous System

We're nearly three hours away from the opening tip of Game 3, and I'm nervous like Nick Anderson at the foul line. The folks at Need For Sheed have put a banner counting down the number of wins the Pistons need to win the championship across the top of their page. No one is giving the Magic a second thought, despite the fact that they've played fairly well through the first two games.

I guess the fact that Detroit has elevated its game so far has something to do with the lack of respect we're getting.

I hope my presence at the game tonight is enough to push the Magic to victory. I'm still jittery, though; the Magic are 1-2 in the other three games I attended this season, and the one victory was against the 76ers, who were without Allen Iverson and yet still managed to take the game down to its final seconds. Jameer Nelson blocked Kevin Ollie's shot as the buzzer sounded. A thrilling victory to be sure, but the 76ers? Come on.

Also causing concern: the amount of rest between games. While it should have been enough for Dwight Howard to recover from the illness he battled through in Game 2, I'm worried that the few days off may have cooled Hedo Turkoglu's shot. Turk is tied with Darko for the NBA lead in playoff field goal percentage at a ridiculously high 66.7%. That's fantastic, but Hedo is one of the streakiest shooters in the Association. If he's cooled off at all, we're in trouble.

For what it's worth, the Pistons have lost their past six Game 3s. I can only hope we can make it seven tonight.

24 April 2007

ESPN's Chris Sheridan: Shaq Nearly Took Scott Skiles' Head Off

As a diversion from the Magic's 2-0 playoff deficit to the Pistons, I thought I'd pass along this article about Scott Skiles and Shaquille O'Neal by Chris Sheridan, an ESPN NBA Insider. In light of tonight's playoff game between the Chicago Bulls, who are coached by Skiles, and the Miami Heat, for which O'Neal plays, Sheridan decided to investigate a fight that took place between the two when they were members of the Magic. Here's a primer:

"[Skiles] always got under my skin. He was like a little gnat," O'Neal said. "He just used to talk too much. Talk about nothing."

O'Neal gave me that quote with a sly grin on his face, no doubt remembering the time the two of them wound up wrestling on the floor at a gym in Los Angeles back in 1994 when Skiles was a wily old veteran and O'Neal was in his second season as a pro, playing for the Orlando Magic.

"He swung, but I ducked under it and ended up in kind of a headlock," Skiles told me Monday morning when I asked him to retell the story of the day Shaq threw a punch at him and he lived to tell about it.

It's an interesting and hilarious read. I wish I were old enough to remember those days.

Excavation: Pistons 98, Magic 90

At halftime, I wrote that the Magic needed to continue applying pressure and to execute their offense effectively if they hoped to beat the Pistons. They failed to do both those things, and they lost the game by a final score of 98-90.

What is there to say at this point? Grant Hill and Hedo Turkoglu were the only starters who showed up, combining for 43 of our 90 points. Reserves and former Pistons Darko Milicic and Carlos Arroyo played well off the bench, but that was all that went well for the Magic.

Most disconcertingly, Dwight Howard wore an invisibility cloak tonight despite playing very well in Game 1. Even considering that he felt ill and was not at 100%, Howard had a horrible game. He registered 8 points, 11 rebounds, and about 28 glares at officials. It was clear from the onset that Howard was shaken: Rasheed Wallace blocked his first field goal attempt, then hit a long three-pointer on the ensuing possession, with Howard running out to challenge the shot. I wrote earlier that come out with a vengeance in the third quarter. That did not happen. In the period, Howard drew three fouls, dished an assist, grabbed two rebounds, and turned the ball over once. He did not attempt a field goal.

One Detroit possession sums up the sort of game the Magic had. After a Hedo Turkoglu jumper cut the Detroit lead to seven, the Magic played tough-nosed defense on the Pistons, battling through both screens and flying elbows. Richard Hamilton ended up with the ball on the right wing with just three seconds on the shot clock. Playing 'hot potato', he chucked the ball to Rasheed Wallace, who threw the ball in the general direction of the basket as the buzzer sounded. Wallace's heave banked in, bumping the Detroit lead to 10 points and essentially ending the game.

It bears noting that Jameer Nelson is having a terrible series. He's shooting 33.3%, and posting per-game averages of just 9.5 points and 3.0 assists. He's also awful defensively, giving up at least 5 inches of height to anyone he guards and having great trouble fighting through Detroit's wall-like screens. He has to play better if we are to stand a chance. I also hasten to point out that Nelson's flagrant foul on Richard Hamilton in the first quarter seemed to wake up the Pistons, who broke a 12-12 tie by scoring 7 straight points. In other words, he's better at sparking the Pistons' offense than he is at sparking the Magic's.

The odds are not in our favor, Magic fans: teams trailing a best-of-seven NBA playoff series 2-0 have come back to win just 11 of 364 possible series; that's a mere 3%. I hold out hope that we can steal at least one game, but it's really starting to look grim now.

Game 3 is Thursday night in Orlando.

POSTSCRIPT: Tracy McGrady made the following comments to TNT's Craig Sager following the Rockets' defeat of the Jazz:

This is the first time I felt like, you know, I've had a great supporting cast that can, you know, help me advance past the first round.
Ouch. I guess we know now that Tracy had given up on us long before his final season with the team. Okay, Yao Ming and Shane Battier are better players than Drew Gooden and Darrell Armstrong, but the Magic were up 3-1 in that series. Even then, he didn't think that he could get out of the first round. Thanks a lot.

23 April 2007

Notes From Halftime of Game 2

I am pleasantly surprised that we trail by just three at halftime here in game 2. We held Detroit to 5-of-20 shooting in the second quarter. The fact that we're hanging around with virtually no production from Dwight Howard is surprising, even encouraging, because he should come out with a vengeance in the third quarter. I think the Pistons have gotten into his head a bit, but the officials certainly haven't helped either. It's cheap to pin a loss on the officials, but Dwight is getting hacked outright each time he touches the ball. Maybe Eddie Rush and co. believe that they're doing the Magic a favor by not sending Dwight to the foul line, but I digress.

Meanwhile, Hedo Turkoglu is en fuego - 15 points on a perfect 7-of-7 from the field. He would have 18 on 8-of-8 if he hadn't stepped out of bounds before shooting another three. I never thought I'd have to say this, but we need Hedo Turkoglu if we want to win.

Steve Kerr and Charles Barkley of TNT both seem to think the Pistons are just mailing it in, are in "cruise control" in Barkley's words, and will play hard when it counts, and I think there's some truth to that. But I don't think they've handed us this game, necessarily. They didn't shoot 5-of-20 in the second quarter because they were disinterested; they sure as hell looked like they were trying to me. I think we've done a good job of applying some pressure on the Pistons. Now, it becomes a matter of keeping the pressure up and executing the offense effectively.

22 April 2007

So Close, Yet So Far: Pistons 100, Magic 92

When a team...

  • Shoots 58.1% from the field,
  • Outrebounds its opponent 39 to 33, and
  • Gets 13 points and 19 rebounds from its franchise center...
...it should win. At the same time, when a team...
  • Commits 21 turnovers,
  • Misses 18 free throws and,
  • Lets its opponent share the ball, allowing 29 assists on 34 field goals...
... it should lose.

The Magic were both of those teams tonight, and fell short in Game One of its first-round matchup against Detroit by a final count of 100-92. It was the same maddening scenario we Magic fans have seen all year: A young, inexperienced team spots an early lead to a superior opponent, then battles back, only to fall short in the end. The numbers don't lie: WE ARE GOOD ENOUGH TO BEAT DETROIT. Our 21 turnovers lead to 17 Detroit points. At the same time, we hit only half of our free throws, wasting an otherwise solid effort.

If it's any consolation, we were in the game late, trailing by just three until Tayshaun Prince put the nail in the coffin, again, by dunking with 00:37 to play, extending the Detroit lead to five and forcing us to foul on every subsequent possession. Remember that it was Prince who hit a hook shot over Hedo Turkoglu to break a 95-95 tie score in these teams' final regular-season meeting, which the Pistons went on to win. The man has it out for us.

On another note, Darko should sprain his foot more often. He played a fantastic game, scoring 14 points on 5-of-6 shooting, including several thunderous tomahawk jams. He also appears to have worked on his hook shot, which now arcs nicely instead of lining directly at the rim. It's games like these that make me feel stronger about re-signing him this summer. But I don't want to get ahead of myself.

Essentially, the game was ours for the taking. We were right there at the end.

... and it slipped away.

We'll get 'em on Monday night.

21 April 2007

Notes From Halftime of Game 1

The first half Game 1 is in the books and I'm actually a bit impressed. Perhaps it says something about the state of the franchise when trailing by 8 at halftime and shooting 30% from the foul line is considered impressive. It's a bit mind-boggling to think that we could actually be leading this game if we didn't shoot free throws so anemically.

We ended the first half on a high note, as Trevor Ariza scored a layup off a steal as time expired. But what really encourages me about this game is the play of Darko Milicic. I didn't think he'd even be available for today's game after spraining his foot against Washington earlier this week. He has 8 points on 3-of-3 shooting: one huge tomahawk slam and two jump hooks. If he keeps playing with this intensity, he'll give us another reliable scoring option.

The second half is about the get underway. Let's see if we can play with our heads on straight and steal a game from Detroit.

19 April 2007

Brave New World

Don't look now, but the Magic closed out their season on a four-game winning streak to finish at 40-42 (.488). We played well down the stretch, which is encouraging, but this streak leaves me feeling like there's a cloud above our heads.

Why the feeling of impending doom?

The last time the Magic won five straight was from December 30th to January 12th. Not bad, right? Well, no, but what happened next was: they dropped their next six games and never really recovered. To be fair, that downward spiral began when Trevor Ariza injured his knee against Golden State, which was the last game in that winning streak. Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but Darko Milicic went down with a sprained foot against Washington two nights ago. Luckily, we managed to win both that game and last night's contest against Miami, which didn't play its stars at all. What I'm getting at is as follows: We've gone on streaks like this before, then lost a player due to injury, then spiraled out of control.

We really need Darko against Detroit. I don't know how else to say it. Power forward is a really weak spot on our team. As much as I bust on Jameer for being mediocre, at least he's young and has a capable veteran, Carlos Arroyo, backing him up. Milicic is our only true talent at power forward. Consider our other options:

  • Tony Battie may start games, but he rarely finishes them. He has no offensive game and provides only marginal help on the glass.
  • Bo Outlaw can't do anything like he used to because he's aged.
  • Pat Garrity has lost his shooting touch and couldn't guard a chair if he had to. He also can't rebound.
  • James Augustine is a rookie who has played in 7 minutes this entire season.

Darko's absence -- he won't be available until next week at the earliest -- is going to force Brian Hill to get creative in his rotation. He might have to play "small ball" and we saw some of it last night against Miami. At one point, Hill had both Battie and Hedo Turkoglu out of position, with Battie at center and Turkoglu at power forward. I'm all in favor of limiting Pat Garrity's minutes as much as possible. I love Pat, he's great for the community and everything, but he can't be expected to guard Rasheed Wallace or Chris Webber for any length of time. He's just too slow.

This series is really going to be a litmus test for our youngsters. Dwight Howard, Jameer Nelson, and Trevor Ariza are all getting their first tastes of playoff action and it will be interesting to see how they react to the pressure. The core of this Detroit team has won two titles in the past five years, so they know exactly what to do. At this point, all I can ask for is that everyone plays hard and doesn't make any mistakes. If we get outplayed, fine; Detroit is a more talented team anyway. I just don't want to go down without a fight, and that means that everyone plays as hard as he can and as intelligently as he can for as long as he's in the game.

Come out swinging.

Postscript: Over/under on big shots in the series from J.J. Redick: three. Take the over. He looked very confident last night against Miami. He also knows all about playing under pressure; going to college at Duke will do that to you.

16 April 2007

I've Got Your Hookup: Super Secret Orlando Magic Playoff Ticket Pre-Order

Please excuse my giddiness in this entry. It's just exciting to be able to go to a playoff game.

Magic playoff tickets don't go on sale until tomorrow morning, but from 5:00 PM today until 10:00 AM tomorrow, fans can use a secret password to pre-order them. I was just able to secure two seats for Game A in the upper bowl, near center court, for $80.65, which includes processing fees. That's a sweet deal, and you can get it.

So, what's the password? I don't know if I'm allowed to divulge it explicitly here, but here's how you can get it:

  1. Create an account at MySpace.
  2. Become friends with the Orlando Magic.
  3. Check your bulletin box, which is located on the left side of the screen. You should have one from the Magic that contains the password, as well as links to the TicketMaster pages from which you can order the tickets.
It really is that simple, Magic fans. Let's throw back the clock to the days of the O-Rena and make the team's home playoff games deafening, exciting affairs.

Hold On For Dear Life: Magic 88, Celtics 86

If there's a textbook definition of "backing in to the playoffs", I imagine that tonight's white-knuckle victory over Boston matches it almost exactly. After pummeling the Celtics 30-19 in the third quarter to take a 19-point lead into the fourth, the Celtics stormed back and nearly stole one from us.

Well, maybe I should check that. The Celtics didn't so much as storm back as much as we gave them an engraved invitation to beat us. We didn't hit any shots over the last 6:44 of the period, only mustering three free throws over that span. Meanwhile, we messed around with the ball so badly that it nearly cost us the game. The full play-by-play is available here, but a summary of our miscues in that stretch is shown in this chart:

If there's a better case for why the Magic need a go-to scorer, I'd like to see it. Jameer Nelson, who has made himself our top clutch option this season, committed the most actions that resulted in a Boston possession. He had an otherwise good game before melting down here, which is exactly what he needs to AVOID if he is going to carry this team for the future.

It also occurs to me that Grant Hill is conspicuous in his absence from that chart; he didn't even take a shot. As the veteran leader, you'd think that he'd be getting the ball in these tight situations. I put some of the blame for Hill's lack of usage on Jameer; after all, it's his job to GIVE TEAMMATES THE BALL when they need it. At this point, I'm about 85% sure that Carlos Arroyo should be playing more minutes. He has more experience. The entire population of Puerto Rico has been saying this for the past month.

I know I sound angry and bitter, but I assure you that I'm glad we made the playoffs. It's been entirely too long, and it'll be good for the youngsters to get some postseason experience. We're virtually locked in to the 8th seed, which means a first-round matchup with Detroit, which means a fairly early trip home. Nonetheless, It's good that we'll be playing more than 82 games this season.

What I'm most concerned about now is momentum. The bottom dropped out tonight, and I can only hope that we're able to duplicate our otherwise solid play this month. Look at it like this: we were two last-second Hedo Turkoglu blocked shots away from going into overtime with the Celtics in a game we lead by 19 points. OMINOUS.

Anyway, we visit Washington on Tuesday, which got thumped badly by Chicago earlier today, so the Wizards will certainly be pumped up for that game. We can't afford to let up now that we've clinched because there's still a chance, however slim, that we could leapfrog them in the standings and thus draw a more favorable first-round playoff opponent. So, sadly, it appears as though we've seen the last of James Augustine and Travis Diener.

14 April 2007

Shine On Me: Magic 104, 76ers 87

Grant Hill has plenty to clap about. Although he didn't have a great game, one of his teammates sure did, and it could not have come at a better time for the Magic.

I'll let Dwight Howard's linescore speak for itself:
35 points, 14-15 field goals, 7-10 free throws, 11 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals in 43 minutes.

Shaq who?

The Magic went into Philadelphia today and made a huge statement by blowing out the 76ers and ending that team's remote playoff hopes. The Magic themselves increased their lead over Indiana for the 8th playoff spot in the East to two games.

It's one thing to pick up a win after a heartbreaking loss. It's quite another to go into another team's home floor and lead wire-to-wire in a double-digit victory. For me, the most pleasing numbers in this game's box score aren't those next to Dwight's name. In fact, the numbers to which I am alluding don't come next to any player's name. No, they're the quarter-by-quarter scores. We outscored Philly in each quarter, refusing to let up even when it became apparent that they didn't have a chance.

Really, it's hard to think of anything that went wrong for us today, except for Darko Milicic's embarrassing missed dunk.

On an individual level, there was Dwight's incredible performance, which included an improbable 13-foot bank shot from the left wing. Darko scored 14, including back-to-back 19-footers from the top of the key. Even Keith Bogans played well, scoring 5 points and grabbing 3 rebounds in only 8 minutes of action, which he probably would not have seen if J.J. Redick had not been deactivated due to a sore quad muscle.

The collective numbers are also good. We shot 53% while holding the 76ers to just 39%. We scored 104 points, the fifth time in this month's six games that we've exceeded 100 -- and the exception was against Detroit, against which we scored 99. Impressively, we had 25 assists on 43 field goals, and five players recorded at least three assists. In my recap for the Pistons game, I wrote that the Magic played as individuals rather than as a team, and that proved to be their undoing. Credit Brian Hill and the rest of the coaching staff for stressing ball movement and unselfish play in practice this week.

I can only hope that today's high level of play can carry over until tomorrow's game with Boston, which has shut down Paul Pierce and Al Jefferson, its two best players, for the rest of the season. The Celtics have guaranteed the league's second-worst record and, as such, their draft lottery position is assured. In other words, they're just playing out the season and waiting for the draft. If the Magic win -- and they should, barring a letdown of colossal proportions -- and the Pacers lose their game with the Nets, we'd clinch a playoff berth. So, as counterintuitive as it seems, we actually become Net fans tomorrow; after that, we can curse them all they want, as we want to steal the 7th playoff spot from them.

Summarily, we've played better in April than our 3-3 record indicates, even considering that our 3 wins came against some dreadful teams. If we keep playing this way for the rest of the season, we'll have a great deal of confidence heading into the playoffs. In an earlier entry, I wrote that the Magic needed to make a fourth quarter surge. Well, they've done that. Now all they have to do is keep it up.

13 April 2007

There's A Battle Ahead

An enterprise, when fairly once begun, should not be left till all that ought is won.
- William Shakespeare

I've lived in Orlando my whole life, and I swear I've had the following conversation at least 50 times:
Stranger: So, where are you from?
Me: Orlando.
Stranger: Oh, so you must go to Disney all the time then, right?
Me: ...no.

Here's what I want that conversation to turn into at some point in the near future:
Stranger: So, where are you from?
Me: Orlando.
Stranger: Oh, yeah. Go Magic!

Is that really so much to ask? I really don't think so. I bet New Yorkers get this one a lot:
Stranger: So, where are you from?
New Yorker: New York City.
Stranger: Oh. Yankees or Mets?
One of the most identifiable and integral parts of New York is the tradition of sports excellence, although you wouldn't know it by watching today's Knicks play. I'm not saying we need to be New York; that's incredibly unrealistic, considering the fact that NYC is essentially the Capital of the Known Universe. But what I am saying is that I know plenty of Orlandoans who are sick of their hometown being known for Mickey Mouse and "that giant golf ball thing."

What is it going to take to make Orlando renowned for its sports? Probably a lot, considering that the Magic is our only major sports team. The fact that UCF hasn't been remotely competitive since Daunte Culpepper turned pro doesn't help The City Beautiful, either. But I know what could help the city and its image, and it involves the Magic:

Fans. Passionate, yelling, screaming, flag-waving, jersey-wearing, wallet-opening, blue-and-silver-bleeding fans.

If you've been to a Magic game lately, you know that there aren't too many fans of that sort attending. The Orlando Arena -- I refuse to call it by its sponsored name -- can get dreadfully silent during a basketball game. The only times fans make noise are when they are prompted to by the either the Noise-O-Meter on the JumboTron or by public address announcer Paul Porter. Otherwise, they sit and stare in silence, even when the team is playing well. What kind of boring way of supporting a team is that?

I know that people have given up on the Magic. They're sick of losing, they're sick of Brian Hill, they're sick of crappy personnel moves, they're sick of the whole arena fiasco, et cetera. I posit this question to those "fans" who cite any of those reasons as justification for abandoning the team: What the hell did the Magic ever do to you to make you so bitter?

I know it isn't easy, guys. Believe me.

I still remember Nick Anderson's missed free throws in our lone NBA Finals appearance.

I still remember the day when Shaquille signed with the Lakers; ironically enough, I was staying at a Disney hotel with my parents when I heard the news.

I still remember when Penny staged a player revolt and drove Brian Hill out of town the first time.

I still remember the Heart-And-Hustle team of 1999/2000, which featured Ben Wallace, Chucky Atkins, Darrell Armstrong, and nobody else in particular.

I still remember when we signed T-Mac and Grant Hill to twin $93 M contracts seven years ago and the future looked so bright, only to have the bottom drop out on it once Grant's ankle started acting up.

I still remember when we lost nineteen straight games in 2003/2004 and the franchise got turned on its head once more.

I still remember when T-Mac demanded a trade and then insulted the whole franchise by admitting that he didn't give his best effort here.

I still remember when we wasted our no. 11 pick in 2005 on Fran Vasquez, who's still playing in Europe.

In short, I HAVE BEEN THROUGH THE SAME SHIT YOU HAVE BEEN THROUGH. And I haven't given up. Why? Because I've stuck through that much, and a few more losing seasons aren't going to keep me down.


If you're going through hell, keep going.
- Winston Churchill
I know it's not easy to be a Magic fan right now, especially considering how our league-best 13-4 start devolved into today's mediocre 36-42 record. But then again, when has it ever been easy recently? The glory days may be gone, but that doesn't mean it's time to write off the franchise.

We have Dwight Howard, who hasn't developed into half the player he will be and yet is already the second best player in the league at his position.

We have Jameer Nelson, who could come off the bench to be the next Vinnie "The Microwave" Johnson -- he heats up in a hurry.

We have Trevor Ariza, whose raw athletic ability and incredible defensive intensity could make him an All-Star if he develops his offensive skills.

Most intriguingly, we'll have $15-17 M to spend this offseason on a premier free agent, like Chauncey Billups, Vince Carter, Rashard Lewis, Gerald Wallace, or Mo Williams.

Could one of those players be the final piece of the puzzle? Well, if you jump ship right now, YOU WON'T KNOW. Sure, you could start cheering and yelling and jump back on the bandwagon and perhaps no one will know the difference, but you will. You'll know that you're a fair-weather fan. And that takes some of the fun out of it, doesn't it?

This season, ESPN's NBA television coverage carries the tagline "Will You Be Watching When...?" and I find it to be appropriate for Magic fans. Orlando, will you be watching when Dwight Howard and co. hoist the team's first Eastern Conference Championship banner since 1994/1995 to the rafters of the Orlando Arena? Or will you read about it in the paper the next day, hit with the realization that you gave up too soon?

Your Pretty Face Is Going to Hell: Pistons 104, Magic 99

"If we don't put ourselves in a hole against an elite team, then we would have given ourselves a better chance."

So said Brian Hill after his team's loss to the East powerhouse Detroit Pistons, who secured the conference's best record with their victory. I've defended Brian Hill in the past, but it's difficult to do so here. I'm not upset with his strategy as I am with his propensity to state the obvious. Yes, Brian, when you let one of the best teams in the league open up and 18-point lead on you, it's hard to win. Thank you for that insight.

Looking at the Magic's side of the box score, it's hard to figure how we lost. The Magic shot 50% from the field, 57% from three-point territory, outrebounded Detroit by a 37-31 margin, and committed just 10 turnovers. Those are remarkable numbers, especially when considering how abysmally we played in the first half. Here's a statistical breakdown:

Grant Hill single-handedly carried us in the first half. But his production dropped off precipitously in the second. Here's a comparison of second half statistics:

The team heated up from the field in the second half, but Grant Hill wasn't able to get involved. Couple that with dreadful free throw shooting, and the reason we lost becomes clearer: a lack of offensive balance. As illustrated in the above tables, Grant Hill took 9 shots in the first half, but just 3 in the second. Dwight Howard struggled from the field and from the foul line, but was continuously fed the ball on offense even though it was clear he was having an off night. The Magic seemed to be playing as individuals rather than as a team.

The irony of that? There's an NBA commercial in which Grant Hill voices over a video clip from last season that shows the Magic working the ball around the perimeter in a game against the Knicks. A final pass is made to an open Magic player, who makes the shot as Hill says "When we play as one, we'll beat any five." Well, the Magic didn't play as one on Wednesday night, and it showed in the result.

Perhaps no incident better illustrates that point than what took place at the end of the game. The Pistons had a two-point lead after Tayshaun Prince hit a hook shot to break a 95-95 tie. On the ensuing possession, Detroit's defense broke down and left Dwight Howard all alone under the basket. Despite his bad shooting night, Dwight aggressively called for the ball. Jameer Nelson somehow manged not to see him. Howard never got the ball; Nelson launched a terrible three-pointer that missed. Detroit gathered the rebound, and Chauncey "Mr. Big Shot" Billups put the nail in the Magic's coffin by draining a three-pointer to push Detroit's lead to 5 with :24 to play. Game over.

The loss moves our record to 36-42 and assures us our fourth straight losing season. I refuse to give up on this team, however; the playoffs are still in sight. Cleveland clobbered New Jersey last night to reduce the Nets' lead over us to one game. A strong finish to our season, coupled with a collapse by either New Jersey or Washington, should assure us a playoff berth. As long as we avoid the 8th seed, which would match us up with Detroit in the first round, we have a shot at pulling an upset and validating our existence.

The Magic enjoy a day off today before facing a gauntlet of four games in five nights. Go make The City Beautiful proud, fellas. It needs you.

11 April 2007

The Art of Divination

The season may not be over, but already rumors are swirling about the Magic's future, particularly as it pertains to the point guard position. Here's the two pieces of information I found to be most interesting:

  • According to Brian Schmitz, Magic free-agent-to-be Travis Diener doesn't think he fits in with the team's long-term plans.
  • According to Tim Povtak, former Magic player and current Memphis Grizzly Chucky Atkins, also a free-agent-to-be, wouldn't mind returning to Orlando this offseason.
Well, you might as well put it on the board, right? Diener wants a chance to play and Atkins wants to finish his career where he grew up -- he used to play for Evans High in Orlando. I think it's a near certainty that the Magic will let Diener go -- heck, they offered him to Charlotte for Melvin Ely a few months ago -- and the odds are great that the Magic will at least consider signing Atkins. But would that be a wise move? To check, I decided to examine the numbers.
I took each player's season totals and adjusted them equal to 40 minutes of playing time so a fair comparison could be made. Because it appears as though Jameer Nelson is, for better or for worse, the Magic's starting point guard of the future, it's unlikely that either player would see 40 minutes of action in an actual game, but I digress. The numbers favor Atkins, but the only statistical category in which he completely outperforms Diener is scoring. Although the Magic have had trouble scoring this season, they can look to one of the big-name free agents this summer -- Vince Carter, Rashard Lewis, and Gerald Wallace among them -- to fix that area of their game. Further, when Atkins' age and proneness to injury are taken into account, the two players are essentially equal.

For me, the key category is assists per turnover. The Magic commit the second-highest amount of turnovers per game while averaging the second-fewest amount of assists. Diener would figure to improve both those categories. Further, Diener is a better shooter than his field goal percentage indicates. Adjusted field goal percentage is a more precise measurement of how well a player is shooting. ESPN explains it this way:
ADJ FG% measures shooting efficiency by taking into account the total points a player produces through his field goal attempts. The intention of this adjustment is largely to evaluate the impact of three-point shooting. For ex: If Shaquille O'Neal has 3-5 FG, all two-point shots for 6 points, then his ADJ FG% = [(6/5)]/2 = .600. Meanwhile, if Ray Allen is 2-5 FG, but his 2 FGM are both three-pointers for 6 points, then his ADJ FG% = [(6/5)]/2 = .600
Thus, Diener is actually the better shooter of the two players. Skeptics might mention that the Orlando doesn't need help in that department because it's 4th in the league in field goal percentage, but that's a lame argument; how can I guy who effectively shoots better than 50% possibly hurt a team if he takes care of the basketball? Okay, Diener is undersized and lacks quickness, making him a defensive liability. So what? Atkins is essentially the same size as Diener is, and he's much older. Plus, the Magic have Dwight Howard guarding the lane on defense; if a Diener, Atkins, or whoever plays the point lets the guy they're supposed to be guarding blow by them, Howard will be in the lane to block the shot, or at least to alter it.

Don't get me wrong, though. I like Chucky Atkins. I attended a few games during the 1999/2000 season when he was with the Magic and admired his effort. However, the Magic have a long-term need at point guard, and Atkins isn't the answer. I'd hate to see his career devolve the way Bo Outlaw's or Pat Garrity's did; those two once-proud players are now essentially being paid to be nice in the locker room and mentor the Magic's young core of players. Chucky deserves better.

My point is this: Travis Diener can be of use to the Magic as a third point guard who can one day become the backup or even start in spot duty. Carlos Arroyo and Keyon Dooling, although they are not much older than Diener, are not the long-term answer at the position. Diener will be a restricted free agent this summer, meaning the Magic have the right to match any offer another team makes. They'd be wise to do so.

10 April 2007

Another Reason to Hate the Wizards/Philly Does Us a Phavor

Damn those Washington Wizards and their golden uniforms.

Washington somehow managed to lose to New Jersey despite holding an 89-84 lead with 1:40 to play. Thus, the Nets now have a full one-game lead on the Magic in the East standings. By virtue of having a better intra-conference record, the Nets would get the higher playoff seed if they were to finish the regular season with a record identical to Orlando's. The Magic's job doesn't get any easier, as they visit Detroit tomorrow night to face the conference-leading Pistons. Should they lose that game, any hopes they have of leapfrogging New Jersey for the 7th seed would effectively be dashed. In fact, there's a chance that the Nets may actually move up to the 6th spot, given Washington's free-fall. The Wizards are without their two best players, All-Stars Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler, and have lost five straight games and eight of 10 overall. Meanwhile, the Nets are 6-4 in their past 10 and All-Stars Vince Carter and Jason Kidd are playing their best basketball of the season. On Saturday, they both managed to record triple-doubles in the same game, something that hadn't been done in 18 years.

What I'm getting at is the following: perhaps no team has frustrated the Magic this season the way the Wizards have. They've taken two of the three games between the teams so far this season, including a 112-111 decision in which the Magic had three players score 20 points and still managed to lose -- due in large part, I hasten to add, to a third quarter in which the Magic were outscored 26-19. Why was that loss so horrifying? For one, it was a close game. But more importantly, the outcome gave the Wizards the lead in the Southeast division, which Orlando had lead for much of the season.

The point at which Orlando's and Washington's lines intersect shows the teams' records at the beginning of the week in which that game took place. After that game, it appeared as though the Magic had woken up, as they went on a five-game winning streak immediately afterwards, giving them the division lead once again. After that, their season officially began to unravel, as they proceeded to lose all the ground they made up during that winning streak by dropping their next five games, one of which was an embarrassing 21-point home drubbing at the hands of the Wizards. As shown on the graph, Orlando never regained the division lead after that point.

There was some good news coming out of tonight's NBA action, however. The lowly Philadelphia 76ers defeated the unraveling Indiana Pacers to move the Pacers two games back of Orlando. While I'm certainly thankful that the 76ers gave us a slight cushion, whatever goodwill I have towards them will be eliminated on Saturday, when the Magic visit Philadelphia and hope to solidify their playoff status. Despite their poor record, the 76ers have played well lately, and finish tonight a half-game ahead of New York for the 10th-best record in the East. There is still an outside shot that Philadelphia can make the playoffs -- they are four games back with five left to play -- so they will certainly have incentive to play hard. However, budding star Andre Iguodala is battling back trouble and may have to sit out against the Magic. That bodes well for Orlando, which needs every break it can get to reach the postseason.

The message from Philly's game tonight is as follows: the postseason chase, like politics, makes for strange bedfellows. The Magic have every reason to loathe the 76ers, not only because of this Saturday's contest but also because of 6th-seeded Philadelphia's improbable 3-1 playoff victory over 3rd-seeded Orlando in 1999. Okay, that happened a long time ago; hell, Penny Hardaway was still playing for the Magic at that point. Still, grudges can be good to hold if they provide motivation, and although nobody currently on either team played in that series, the Magic should still be mindful that this Philadelphia franchise prematurely ended their last legitimate shot at a title.

Go get 'em, boys.

Blood in the Water: Magic 117, Bucks 94

As any longtime Magic fan can attest, there are just some things the Magic can't do: get out of the first round of the playoffs, draft well, hang on to the ball, and beat the Lakers. And although I wasn't aware of it before yesterday, there's another thing the Magic have difficulty with: winning in Milwaukee. Prior to last night's stomping of the Bucks in the Bradley Center, the Magic had lost 15 of their last 16 in that building and had not won there since 2002. They even lost there earlier this season when the Bucks were without Michael Redd, their best player. Talk about your house of horrors.

The Bucks offered little resistance to the Magic last night. I have to admit, however, that I was worried when Milwaukee made 7 of its first 8 shots to open the game, but that worry soon vanished when the Bucks got cold, failing to score a field goal for nearly the entire final 3:46 of the period until Lynn Greer (who?) made a jumper at the buzzer. Orlando, on the other hand, never seemed to cool off, tying a season-best for accuracy by shooting 62.5% from the floor for the game.

I'm sure cynics will try to downplay the impact of this win because Milwaukee was without three of its starters (Redd, Andrew Bogut, and Charlie Villanueva) and only had one player taller than 6'5", but at the risk of stating the obvious, a win is a win. The Magic are still in the thick of the playoff hunt, holding a 1.5 game advantage over Indiana for the 8th playoff spot in the East and trailing New Jersey by just .5 a game for the 7th spot. The playoffs are still very much possible for this team. Also consider that the Magic's only two losses this month game by a combined 4 points and you'll see that they have been playing much better lately. The Magic are playing well when it counts? You've got to be kidding.

Am I surprised that the Magic won? Moderately. I'm more encouraged than I am anything else. The Magic have dropped games to some pretty miserable teams this year, so seeing them come out and play hard against crappy competition was encouraging. They knew they had to win this game, which Brian Schmitz called a "must-win". And they did it without a great effort from veteran leader Grant Hill, who scored 7 points on just 3-of-8 from the field. Instead, Hedo Turkoglu continued his hot streak by scoring 25 points on a sizzling 10-of-15 from the floor. Darko Milicic, who had been playing in a fog, scored 11 points on a perfect 5-of-5 shooting performance to go along with 9 rebounds and 4 assists. Jameer Nelson, whom I have criticized heavily in this blog, put together a fine game by scoring 12 points on 50% shooting, just the third time he has made over half his shots in a game since March 3rd. He also added a season-high 9 assists to raise his April average to 5.2 assists per game. Maybe this stretch will teach him that he doesn't need to shoot the ball for the Magic to be successful.

I think the following statistic sums up just how the Magic dominated last night: of the Magic's 50 made field goals, 12 of them were dunks. Milwaukee made 34 shots, only one of which was a dunk, and that came with under two minutes to play and both teams playing lackadaisically. Orlando now has 26 dunks in its past two games, a remarkably high total. Although I doubt that they'll be able to pick apart Detroit's defense on Wednesday night the way they've dismantled Milwaukee's and Memphis', they should have a great deal of confidence. Just look at Keyon Dooling here:

The intensity with which Dooling dunked in that photo is the sort of emotion everyone on this team needs to maintain if they are going to beat Detroit on Wednesday. The Pistons don't play soft.

Just ask Shaquille.