13 April 2007

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.

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