By John DentonApril 17, 2012
BOSTON – For almost eight seasons, Dwight Howard has been so dominant inside and such a commanding presence on the low block that just about any Orlando Magic possession that didn’t pass through the all-star center’s hands was a bad one.
But with Howard out lately with a herniated disc in his back and quite possibly not back until the playoffs, the Magic have had to make major adjustments to the way they operate their offense. And much to their shock, the offense has been more efficient and as equally potent.
Not having Howard has not only shown that the Magic (36-25) are far more than a one-man team, but it’s also been a somewhat liberating experience for those calling and running through the sets. And the proof is in the numbers: Turnovers are down, while points per possession and overall balance are up in an off-the-charts sort of way.
``There seems to be a freedom now that guys don’t feel like the ball has to go to just one man,’’ Magic head coach Stan Van Gundy said candidly. ``The ball’s going to open man instead.’’
Of course, the Magic don’t want to go long term without their superstar center, especially because of the intimidating presence he brings to the Magic’s defense. And they certainly wish they had him Wednesday night in Boston when they take on the Celtics at 8 p.m. But for now the Magic are hoping to ride the wave of energy that their newfound motion offense has provided.
``The ball is definitely moving more, but it has to because we’re missing some big parts of our team,’’ said captain Jameer Nelson, referring to the recent losses of Hedo Turkoglu, Glen ``Big Baby’’ Davis and Howard to injuries. ``We’re not calling any post-up plays because we don’t have anybody to post up. But everybody has contributed, we’re sharing the ball better and we’re playing at such high energy.’’
The Magic hope to get some of their post-up power back on Wednesday with the possible return of Davis, who sprained his knee minutes into Sunday’s win in Cleveland. Davis was relieved on Monday when a MRI revealed no structural damage in his knee and he hopes to return to face the team he spent his first four NBA seasons playing for.
``I was really relieved. It’s a blessing that nothing bad happened,’’ Davis said. ``We’ll see how I feel (on Tuesday), but (playing against the Celtics on Wednesday) is what I’m shooting for.’’
Monday’s game against the Philadelphia 76ers could have easily evolved into an ugly night for the Magic considering how the odds seemed to be stacked against them. Not only were the Magic playing on the second night of a back-to-back while the Sixers were rested, Orlando was also severely shorthanded without three of its top four players.
But none of that mattered to a Magic squad that seemed to be playing with a purpose. The ball swung crispy around the perimeter and there were usually multiple pick-and-roll sets executed on each possession.
That exertion of effort helped the Magic score 61 points in the first half, 113 in the game and shoot 52.3 percent on the night. And even when they did miss, the Magic hustle made up for it with a 46-30 advantage on the glass. Ryan Anderson (eight) had twice as many offensive rebounds as Philadelphia’s team combined (four), while Earl Clark set a new career high for boards (11).
``This,’’ Anderson said, pausing for effect, after scoring 26 points and grabbing 16 rebounds, ``is how we have to play to win games.’’
When the night was complete, 12-year veteran Quentin Richardson was calling the defeat of Philadelphia one of the most inspiring victories he had been a part of in several seasons. Van Gundy was downright giddy about the level of energy with which the Magic exerted and the efficiency they played with. And Jason Richardson, who had 17 points, was most proud of his team’s steely resolve.
``With so many guys banged up and out injured, we could have felt sorry for ourselves and lost by 20,’’ Richardson said. ``But our guys stuck together and I’m proud of that.’’
Despite a season full of drama with Howard’s season-opening trade request, Davis’ occasional tantrums, Howard’s waiving of his opt-out clause, the sniping between Van Gundy and Howard and the rash of injuries of late, the Magic have indeed stuck together. Their locker room was a mosh pit of sorts on Sunday night when they clinched a sixth straight playoff berth. And following Monday’s win, more than half the Magic’s players was planning team outing Tuesday night to the Boston Red Sox game at historic Fenway Park.
``We’ve really been through a lot this season, but this group has really remained close,’’ Anderson said. ``That’s really be the key to this team this season.’’
Just how long the Magic can keep winning without Howard and Turkoglu and winning with their new, free-flowing offense remains to be seen. Dead ahead are the Celtics, who have handed out two of the Magic’s worst memories of the season. Orlando scored a franchise-low 56 points in Beantown in January and then blew a 27-point lead at home against the Celtics four days later.
Then, the Magic will make a mini-trip out West with back-to-back games in Utah and Denver. Both the Jazz and Nuggets are in a fight to qualify for the playoffs, so winning on the road will be especially difficult.
``We’ll find out how well it works as we go forward,’’ Van Gundy said. ``But I love the way we’ve played for two games and I’m going to enjoy that. It tells you the value of a team and of playing hard. It’s not about two guys; it’s about a lot of guys getting involved in the game. … There’s no selfishness and no agendas and everybody is just playing.’’
John Denton writes for OrlandoMagic.com. John has covered the Magic since 1997 and recently authored ``All You Can Be’’ with Magic center Dwight Howard. E-mail John at firstname.lastname@example.org
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