Preview and Chat: The Orlando Magic

Kurt —  December 27, 2006

Big Test. Great new blog post by Roland Lazenby this morning, which is a must read for you Derek Fisher fans out there. But for my purposes I’ll just excerpt the part about tonight’s game:

Now the Lakers face a huge test, a moment of truth, in their efforts to rebuild into a championship contender. Are they going to fall apart? Or will they find the toughness and leadership to hang together during hard times?

“What happens in these next two games is pretty important,” Winter told me Tuesday, the day after L.A.’s fiasco against the Miami Heat. “You have to see how they respond, how they come back.”

If Dwyane Wade is a god… What does that make Dwight Howard? Rather than my feeble attempts to wax poetic about him, I’ll let a much better writer than myself, Eric Neel, heap on the praise:

“You think he knows how good he is?” I asked a friend sitting next to me (at a Magic/Sonics game). “You think he has any idea how good he can be?”

He’s just a baby, barely 21, so maybe he doesn’t realize it. He’s quiet and unassuming, so maybe it hasn’t occurred to him. He has all the respect in the world for the esteemed Mr. Grant Hill, so perhaps he defers.

But if it’s starting to dawn on him … if, at 17.1 points and 12.7 rebounds a night, Dwight Howard is getting an inkling, the league had better look out. Because with all the ink we’ve been spilling on LeBron, Carmelo and Dwyane Wade, this is the guy who can truly dominate. This is the guy who can shred the scenery. This is the unstoppable force. This is the man.

Pound it inside? Against Miami the Lakers decided early to take the ball right at Alonzo Mourning, to pound the aging center inside. The results were a lot of blocks, changed shots and foul trouble for the Lakers.

Tonight they get Howard. Do the Lakers challenge him inside or try to go after weaker spots on the perimeter first? I’d say you’ve still got to get Kwame some early touches, but this will be a key game for Cook and Radmanovic to get theirs by dragging the Battie and Darko away from their comfort zone near the rim. That would also help create driving lanes for a hopefully healthier Kobe.

Orlando has cooled off. The Magic are the two seed in the East right now but are just 3-7 in their last 10.

The reason for the cooling is the quick guard combo of Jameer Nelson and Carlos Arroyo has gone cold. For the season Nelson is shooting 51.1% (eFG%) but in the last 10 that has fallen to 36.7%, his three point shooting has fallen from a not-good 31.5% to an abysmal 17.6%.

Arroyo’s shooting has fallen to 39.4% in the last 10 — and just 10% from beyond the arc — but he continues to shoot the ball like he has the hot hand. The only two players on the Magic who have taken more shots in the last 10 games are named Hill and Howard (and they both play 10 more minutes a game).

It’s not just the guards. Orlando has been a poor offensive team all season, with the 24th-ranked offensive rating in the league (104.2 points per 100 possessions, 5.6 behind the Lakers). What hurts them is they turn the ball over more than any other team in the league — yes, even the Lakers. Hard to believe but it’s true. The Magic turn the ball over on 19.8% of their possessions, worse than the Lakers 18.4 (that makes the Lakers 27th in the league).

Former Bruin looking good. While the guards have slumped, Trevor Ariza has looked good in his last 10 games, shooting 57.1% and averaging double digit scoring per game. He also can grab some rebounds, if Howard lets him.

Things to look for: Who controls the glass? Dwight Howard is a rebounding machine, leading the league grabbing 21.4% of all available rebounds when he is on the floor. And a lot of those are on the offensive end, which is why the Magic are the fifth-best offensive rebounding team in the league right now grabbing 29.8% of their missed shots (the Lakers grab 26.8%, which is middle of the pack). Turaif has spark but the Lakers need UPS and Bynum to put a body on Howard and somehow keep him from dominating the glass. More than just the bigs, the rebounding must be a team focus for the Lakers.

Two turnover prone teams, if one of them can curb that nasty habit for a night they take a big step forward.

Nelson and Arroyo are off their games right now, but also are the kind of quick guards that have given the Lakers fits. Good perimeter defense, and smart rotations by the bigs are needed so they don’t heat up.

Besides Howard, the bulk of the scoring comes from the rejuvenated Grant Hill, who is driving into the lane for 40% of his shots and still shooting 42.6% on his jumpers. Kobe and Evans will get the task, and making him less efficient will be key.

The Laker defense needs to step up tonight, this is a team that can be slowed down if the Lakers come out with more defensive energy than we saw on Christmas. On offense, cutters in the lane and sharp inside passing can at least limit the damage the long arms of Howard can do — go right at him and it may be a repeat of Christmas day. Plus, the Lakers need a healthy and sharper Kobe in this one.