Oklahoma City has the future right in front of them. They know the championship is within their grasp after reaching the Western Conference Finals last year and being almost ordained as the favorites to reach the Finals in this 66-game season.
They looked it in the first game.
The Magic? They looked like they were heading in the opposite direction. A team that missed its chance and is on the decline with the end near.
The Thunder had energy and pep in their step, aggressively attacking the Magic and finding different ways to score. The Magic were passive, and going through the motions somewhat offensively. Few players were looking to attack and few players were looking to do more than pass it quickly or shoot. Stan Van Gundy said as much in expressing his disappointment in his team's offensive effort.
The Magic went nearly 12 minutes in the second half without scoring a field goal. On any night against just about any NBA team, that is going to result in a loss. The Magic, who made seven of their first eight shots, were cold the rest of the evening.
Oklahoma City ensured Orlando received a hug lump of coal in a 97-89 victory at Cheseapeake Energy Center on Sunday night. The final score was not indicative of how wide the deficit was for most of the night.
Oklahoma City took firm control of the game in the second quarter when Jameer Nelson and Dwight Howard went to the bench for their normal rest. Chris Duhon and the Glen Davis/Ryan Anderson duo could not create the same type of offense that sustained the Magic through the early part of the first quarter. Nelson was attacking and probing throughout the game, trying to create offense. And the lull lasted for a long time in this game. It was no wonder Nelson had 18 points and six assists, hitting on seven of his 13 shots. He did a very nice job and might have been the best player offensively.
That is even including Ryan Anderson's double-double effort. Anderson scored 25 points and 10 boards, hitting six of his 10 3-point attempts. Van Gundy still called out his play aside from his shooting and rebounding on the offensive end as a sign of the lackadaisical play of the entire team. Van Gundy said Anderson was not setting strong screens and was not doing other things aside from hitting jumpers to create offense for the Magic.
The same could be said for the rest of the team. They were slow for the most part and letting Oklahoma City's defense dictate pace and control. The Thunder, who are a pretty good team so losses to them are not the end of the world, used their length to keep the Magic's ball handlers from penetrating the lane and getting to the basket. They swarmed Dwight Howard when he got the ball in the post and were able to rotate back out to the perimeter in time to affect shots.
When Orlando was not making them, things stagnated to an uncomfortable level. And that was often with the Magic shooting 37.0 percent from the floor for the game.
The Thunder's offense was flowing though. They got out on the break, moved the ball, drove and played aggressively. The Thunder got to the line early and often in the first half against a lackadaisical defense. Oklahoma City turned an Orlando seven-point lead around very quickly in the first quarter. An 18-11 Orlando lead went to 27-22 in Oklahoma City's favor by the end. The Thunder were up 14 at the half and began pulling away a bit in the early part of the third quarter.
The lead was up to 20 when Nelson began attacking more aggressively and when the Magic started finding Howard more. The team cut the lead to 10, but could never get it to single digits. Against an offensive juggernaut with players like Kevin Durant (30 points, 11/19 field goals) and James Harden (19 points, 10/12 free throws), those opportunities have to get taken.
When the Magic gave Howard and Nelson their customary break at the beginning of the fourth quarter things went south fast. Too many players had bad shooting nights in this game. Far too many.
Jason Richardson was an abysmal 1 for 10 from the floor. Hedo Turkoglu scored eight points, shooting 3 for 10 from the floor. Glen Davis had an inauspicious debut with a 3 for 9 performance. Even the offensively reliable Dwight Howard was limited to 11 points on 4-for-12 shooting -- and just 3 for 8 from the line.
The opportunity was there to make this a game in the second half, and the Magic could not deliver because they could not hit shots and could not protect the ball. Eighteen turnovers also plagued the team.
Things were not all bad. Orlando outrebounded Oklahoma City 45-43, grabbing 14 offensive rebounds. Considering how many shots the Magic missed, that is an incredible victory. The Magic's defense also improved dramatically in the second half. Despite going nearly a full quarter without a field goal, Orlando still had a chance to get hot and make a comeback. It might not have happened, but there was good in the Magic's second half defensive effort.
There was just a lot more bad for too long. Consistency and sustainability on both ends of the floor remains an issue.