Tied with 1:30 to go, the Magic might have dreaded going into Dwight Howard. The Hack-a-Howard strategy was off the table with the under-two minute rules in effect. Howard, shooting less than 50 percent from the line for the season and parading to the line and struggling to climb above 50 percent from the foul line in this game, had to be option one, two and three. But the free throws stuck in your mind.
For the second straight night, it was Hedo Turkoglu time. Except it wasn't. This game was going to be won or lost on Dwight Howard's free throws. He shot an NBA regular season record 39 of them on the night. Of course, it would come down to Howard.
No Warrior player could defend him. So when Turkoglu missed a 3-pointer, Howard was there to collect the rebound, score the put back and draw the foul. Howard would sink that free throw, just like he would do 20 other times in setting that attempts record. It was what the Magic needed from the superstar center to mask a poor defensive effort and a frustrating game that had no rhythm with Howard on the line the whole game.
It was all about Howard in a 116-109 win over Golden State at Oracle Arena. Howard scored 45 points and grabbed 23 rebounds. He was 21 for 39 from the line, an NBA regular season record for free throw attempts, and 12 for 21 from the floor. Howard had a 59.0 percent true shooting percentage. Golden State had no answer for him in the low post, thus the constant fouling.
Howard could only get the Magic to 109-109 (or 112-109). His three points opened up an 8-0 run to close the game. And a lot of that work was done by Hedo Turkoglu, finishing the game strong for the second straight night.
Turkoglu continued the run with a riving layup as the defense focused on denying Howard the ball. He then drove on the next possession and found Von Wafer in the corner for a dagger 3-pointer. Turkoglu had a quietly strong game with 20 points and nine assists on the night.
Golden State had gotten everything it had wanted driving into the paint in just an impressive offensive barrage. The team even forced Orlando to go to a zone defense because Orlando simply did not have the defensive energy or will to get stops. Or maybe not even the talent level. Jason Richardson and J.J. Redick struggled containing Monta Ellis on the perimeter and Ryan Anderson and Glen Davis struggled to contain David Lee. Those two players led the attack.
Ellis had 30 points and 11 assists as he blew by his defender and hit impossible contested jumpers. Lee added 26 points and 12 rebounds as the drives pulled Howard away from him for easy baskets and he was able to overpower Anderson and dribble past Davis.
Those were bad matchups. If Dwight Howard didn't start making his free throws, this game certainly would have been lost.
The Warriors raced out to a 9-0 lead in much the same way the Magic did in Portland the night before. They had a lot of energy coming off their win over the Heat on Tuesday. They were quick to the ball, active in the pasisng lanes and ready to take advantage of a lethargic Magic squad. Stan Van Gundy said it best in his post-1st quarter interview with Craig Sager, he just needed his team to try.
There were good defensive possessions here and there. Some ended with baskets anyway because the Warriors were in such a good rhythm -- 52.4 percent from the floor in the game. But most ended poorly. And the same defensive breakdowns on the perimeter happened again and again.
Players were allowed to turn the corner. And because Ellis could just speed past his defender, Howard had to shade over and be ready to make the stop at the rim. That opened up passes to the weak side of the floor to guys like Nate Robinson, Brandon Rush and Klay Thompson. they could get the Magic out of position and drive in for jumpers or further kickouts.
In that respect, there is still a lot to worry about with the Magic.
Mark Jackson wanted to single cover him and stick to the shooters, fouling Howard whenever a post defender got beat. He tried just about everything without doubling him. Early on, it worked relatively well as Howard struggled to break down Andris Biedrins. Eventually he faced them up and used his agility and strength to overpower them. They couldn't defend him and fouling was about the only thing they could do.
Golden State had no chance then, so long as the Magic continued to feed Howard the ball. And that is precisely what Orlando did time and time again in the foruth quarter. Howard rewarded his teammates for their trust. He missed only two or three free throws in the fourth quarter. Howard stepped up to close this game.
And the Magic stepped up to close this West Coast trip (they will head home before going to New York for a game Monday) with a perfect 3-0 record. The Magic still have a lot to work for, but wins are wins.
More performances of pure domination from Howard will lead to more of those.