I promise this is not a weather lead. But it has been horribly cold in Florida lately. No one on the Magic has been shooting particularly well early this season. Rashard Lewis has been cold as ice. Quentin Richardson is indiscriminately hoisting shots -- and subsequently bricking them. Even JJ Redick has seen his struggles from beyond the arc.
Two guys who have not struggled? Vince Carter and Dwight Howard.
Without those two guys, who knows where the Magic would be. Certainly not against the Hawks on Monday night.
With Orlando up two following a Joe Johnson 3-pointer, Carter attacked the basket off a pick and roll and layed it in past an Al Horford reach in. Sure, Carter missed the free throw. But the potential 3-point play made it a four-point game with 15 seconds left and from there, with Dwight Howard protecting the paint, it was all elementary.
The Magic may have shot 43 percent from the floor and four for 22 from beyond the arc, but the defense did more than enough and the offense did just enough to eke out an 93-89 over the Hawks on Monday night at Amway Center.
Orlando needed everything from everyone on the floor to make up for the lack of offensive production. Literally everyone on the floor.
The Magic went down by 13 points within the first six minutes. Dwight Howard picked up two early fouls and Orlando looked to be headed for another struggle against a playoff team. Marcin Gortat and Brandon Bass did a lot to pick up the team's energy and get the Magic back into the game. By the end of the first quarter, Orlando was right back in it for an up-and-down affair.
Gortat eight points and five rebounds, diving on the floor on more than one occasion to save a possession. Bass also had five rebounds and scored six points.
Off the bench, perhaps, no one provided a bigger lift than Jason Williams. Helping fill the gap left by Jameer Nelson's absence (he missed his second straight game with a sprained ankle), Williams scored eight points and grabbed eight rebounds. He hit a couple timely jumpers in the fourth quarter and was the guy leading the team in crunch time during the fourth quarter.
All these guys though only had brief moments in a night that was full of offensive struggles -- and sometimes frenetic basketball. The real stars tonight had to be Dwight Howard and Vince Carter, who both simply willed the team to victory almost taking turns carrying the scoring load.
Carter finished with 19 points, hitting on eight of his 12 shots and two of his five 3-pointers. He rarely settled for jumpers and attacked the basket, drawing a few fouls and finishing around the rim or pulling up for easier jumpers. His penetration eased some of the pressure the Hawks defense was applying.
Howard too poured in an unbelievable game, dominating a long stretch in the third quarter as Orlando added to its lead and held off any Atlanta run. Howard finished with 27 points and 11 rebounds, hitting 10 of his 20 shots (that's right, 20 shots) and, perhaps more impressively, seven of his 11 free throws. He displayed a wide array of moves in breaking down Jason Collins, Zaza Pachulia, Josh Powell and anyone else Atlanta tried to throw at him.
This is not hyperbole, Howard is quickly becoming unguardable one on one.
He and Carter did everything you expect your two best players to do.
Only problem was, the rest of the team struggled mightily and it really took a focused, team effort defensively to get the win.
It would have been pretty easy to foresee Orlando playing the type of lackadaisical defense it played in the first six minutes if the shots did not keep falling. But that is not what happened. After that half-quarter lull, the Magic matched the Hawks' intensity and absolutely smothered them defensively. Orlando kept itself in this game with defense, there is no doubt about it.
Orlando shot only 43 percent from the floor and hit four of 22 3-pointers. Worse than that, the Magic got to the line but struggled from the charity stripe. Orlando made 15 of 24 free throw attempts. And like I mentioned above, Howard had a good night from the foul line. Not acceptable for a team that should be full of decent foul shooters.
All in all, Orlando finished with a surprisingly average 100.8 offensive rating in this game. That number is hardly up to the team's offensive standards.
Defensively, though, this was a game the Magic love to see. They forced the Hawks into 17 turnovers and a 96.4 offensive rating. Hardly what Atlanta expects offensively either. This despite shooting 47.4 percent from the floor and getting a very solid and efficient 23 points from Joe Johnson. Atlanta just could not come up with baskets at the right time and found itself outworked by Orlando in the end.
One possession really tells it all. An errant pass back out to the perimeter was left on the ground. It was Marcin Gortat diving to keep the ball alive who found Jason Williams, also diving to save the ball, who got it safely to a teammate. Orlando ended up not scoring on the ensuing possession but it was a sign of the work the team was willing to put in to winning this game and protecting its home floor (which by the way got loud as the The Fat Guy made his inaugural lap around the new arena).
The shooting struggles are somewhat concerning. Stan Van Gundy seemed pretty confident it will all fix itself. He said of the 22 3-point attempts Orlando took, he felt 18 of them were good looks. That is a fair thing to say, especially before reviewing the tape.
A lot of credit has to go to Atlanta's defense. It did a good job of closing out on shooters and trying to make players work off the dribble -- clearly Orlando's weak spot, especially with Jameer Nelson off the floor. When the ball went into Dwight Howard, the Hawks pretty much knew he was going to score (tonight, it was more or less a 50-50 shot).
The Magic though also fell into its bad habit of settling for jumpers. A quick 3-point attempt here and there broke some momentum and kept Orlando mired in its shooting slump for this game.
Any way you look at it, the Magic's offense failed them in some ways tonight. But they still found a way to defeat a very good Hawks team.