The Cleveland Cavaliers have it easy. For that sake, so do the Los Angeles Lakers, Denver Nuggets and Boston Celtics. The difference between those teams and the Orlando Magic is so clear cut, it smacks you in the face like a playoff game you should have won, then inexplicably lost.
Cleveland has a leader. Make no bones about it, that is LeBron James’ team. Their head coach Mike Brown, who won the 2008-9 Coach of the Year award, has been around. While only in his fourth year in Cleveland, he’s already taken them to one Finals appearance. He also coached under Gregg Popovich on the Spurs 2003 championship team.
The Los Angeles Lakers are led by Kobe Bryant, who’s won three titles, and head coach Phil Jackson, who’s won nine. The Denver Nuggets are a totally different team since they landed Chauncey Billups, a point guard, floor general and former Finals MVP. Denver also has a well-respected head coach in George Karl. The Boston Celtics, last year’s NBA champions, are coached by Doc Rivers and have an established motivator in Kevin Garnett, even though he’s playing that role from the bench as he’s currently injured.
The Orlando Magic have none of this… and it shows. While the series against Boston is not over, Orlando is down three games to two when they already could have easily advanced.
As is often the case when best laid plans go awry, fingers are now being pointed in all directions. Star center Dwight Howard, all of 23 years old, has publicly called out his coach, Stan Van Gundy, who inarguably deserves much of the blame. But there is plenty of top shelf blame to go around. Everybody imbibe. Dissension now appears as prevalent in Orlando’s locker room as togetherness is in Boston’s.
The bottom line is that Orlando has consistently failed to execute on both ends of the floor. They can’t get a stop when they need to, nor can they score when they need a basket most. Failed execution at this level of the NBA playoffs is what differentiates excellence from mediocrity. The Magic are beginning to show their true colors and it’s a soft shade of blue.
Orlando continues to make it hard on its fans. They’re a car wreck on I-4 you cannot turn your head away from. Tuesday’s devastating loss to the Celtics is yet another example of how Orlando can not hold onto a lead.
• In Game One of their first round matchup against the Philadelphia 76ers, the Magic led by 18 points, then lost the game to an Andre Iguodala jump shot with 2.2 seconds remaining.
• In Game Two, the Magic again held an 18-point lead, then allowed Philadelphia to get within five before Orlando finally came away with a victory.
• In Game Three, the Magic actually overcame a 17-point deficit, then lost 96-94 to a Thaddeus Young layup in the final seconds. The Magic went 3 ½ valuable minutes without scoring.
• In Game Four, Orlando led by ten points in the final quarter and were bailed out in the end by a Hedo Turkoglu three-pointer.
• In Game One against the Boston Celtics, Orlando led by 28 points in the second half only to win by five.
• In Game Four of that same series, Orlando outplayed Boston nearly the entire game, yet failed to effectively defend the pick-and-roll, allowing Glen “Big Baby” Davis to nail a jump shot at the buzzer to send Orlando packing.
• Then finally, in Game Five, Orlando led by fourteen in the fourth quarter with under nine minutes to play. Boston’s point guard Rajon Rondo was in foul trouble. Ray Allen was ice cold from the perimeter. Then Boston went on a 13-0 run, outscoring the Magic 17-3 down the stretch, allowing the formerly disgruntled Stephon Marbury to score 12 points in the fourth quarter on the way to a 92-88 loss.
Sensing a trend? This is the most disturbing collapse to hit Orlando since they closed down Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.
Unfortunately for Magic fans, there is no single, right answer. Stan Van Gundy has been called out in the past by one of his former players, Shaquille O’Neal, who referred to him as the “Master of Panic.” Current Orlando backup center, Marcin Gortat, recently told a Polish newspaper that Van Gundy’s coaching style was detrimental to the team. And now Van Gundy has been called out by his star, Dwight Howard. It never bodes well for a head coach when the face of a franchise questions his methods.
However, as ESPN analyst and former player, Jalen Rose, pointed out, Van Gundy’s not the one bringing up thebasketball. Dwight Howard should be demanding the ball in the post. That’s what champions do.
Years ago, I compared a young Dwight Howard to Patrick Ewing and asked whether Dwight would have a better overall career than the Knicks’ Hall of Fame center. One shining difference is that Pat, back in the day, would demand the ball in the post. He’d put a defender on his back, stretch out those long arms and demand the ball from his teammates, then score. Basketball 101. By comparison, Howard’s post play has been inconsistent. If he’s not three feet away from the basket, his field goal percentage declines dramatically. Say what you will about Kendrick Perkins, but he’s done well handling Dwight this series. Dwight shot 68% from the floor against Philly, yet Boston has held him to 55%, below his season average.
There’s no denying Orlando misses their starting point guard, Jameer Nelson, who went down mid-season with a separated shoulder. But Rafer Alston and Anthony Johnson are adequate and experienced backups. Nelson’s absence is not the reason Orlando is struggling.
In the 2009 playoffs, the Magic are shooting a lower percentage than they did in the regular season while simultaneously allowing their opponents to shoot a higher percentage. A bad combination for any team that expects to move on. Blowing twenty point leads is about as difficult as toasting bread, yet the Magic have turned it into an art form.
A team, led by the most dominant young, big man in the league has failed to find its killer instinct. Until they do, the Orlando Magic will continue to be also-rans and not NBA champions.