Magic is a mess, with little time to fix it

Dwight Howard is unable to spring free for his dunks against Boston without any of his Magic teammates able to draw a double team.
Dwight Howard is unable to spring free for his dunks against Boston without any of his Magic teammates able to draw a double team. (Jim Rogash/getty Images)
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By Michael Wilbon
Monday, May 24, 2010

BOSTON It sounded as if the Orlando Magic players and coaches, in the midst of a stunning playoff humiliation, needed an hour group session with a shrink instead of basketball practice Sunday. The primary topics of discussion, even before media members arrived, were blame and accountability, togetherness and psychological challenges.

Whether the players know it or not, the Orlando Magic is a mess. It's down 3-0 to the Boston Celtics, one loss from elimination and utterly at a loss to explain how and why the postseason has been flipped upside down after going 8-0 to start the playoffs.

Dwight Howard, the first-team all-NBA center who had only seven points and seven rebounds in an embarrassing Game 3 loss here Saturday night, has been a bust against the Celtics. Rashard Lewis, a prolific shooter in last year's playoffs and through two rounds this spring, has suffered a historic falloff. And Coach Stan Van Gundy, who Shaq once called "The Master of Panic," is blaming himself entirely for what has or hasn't happened, particularly the Game 3 Orlando no-show that saw the Magic down by 32 before losing, 94-71.

"It's not a matter of blame, it's a matter of taking responsibility," Van Gundy said. "You get in this situation, you start subconsciously making comments to people to let them know, 'It's not my fault.' But this is not about blame." Then, of course, Van Gundy blamed himself, saying, "The play calling isn't as good as it needs to me, and that's on me. But the players have to watch film. They're not running back, not blocking out. I haven't done a good job. The players have to think the same way."

All of Sunday was a struggle for Orlando's coaches and players to come up with something before the Celtics bash them again here in Boston on Monday night for the sweep, just one year after the Magic reached the NBA Finals.

Mickael Pietrus might have offered the most common-sense assessment. When asked if these Celtics are close to as good as the 2008 Celtics team which won the NBA championship, Pietrus said: "No, they're better than they were two years ago. Since they beat Cleveland, their confidence is soaring. [Rajon] Rondo is unbelievable."

Conversely, Orlando isn't as good as it was last season and the reason ought to be fairly obvious. The Magic did not re-sign Hedo Turkoglu, its primary playmaker even though he is listed as a 6-foot-9 forward. Turkoglu was the most important player on the team because he could not only shoot from anywhere but get into the lane, draw double-teams and find teammates, notably Lewis -- who since he rarely puts the ball on the floor more than a time or two has become completely dependent on a playmaker. Making Turkoglu even more valuable is Howard's relatively limited offensive repertoire. He's only effective within arm's reach of the basket, and it was Turkoglu's ability to lure defensive help, often from the man guarding Howard, that left Howard free for all those easy dunks.

Vince Carter, the man Magic management thought could replace Turkoglu, has never been a move-the-ball, others-first facilitator. It's not his skill set. Oh, nobody much noticed during the regular season but now that Orlando is facing a Celtics team that can guard man-to-man without double-teaming Howard, the offense doesn't work. As Jameer Nelson said of the Celtics defense, "They're just sticking with our shooters."

Want proof? Last year Turkoglu averaged 5.3 assists in the conference semifinal series when Orlando beat Boston. Through three games of this series against Boston, Carter is averaging 1.5 assists per game. In the disastrous Game 3, no Orlando player had more than two and the team had a total of 10 compared to 17 turnovers. Nelson, the nominal point guard, had one assist and four turnovers. Lewis had no assists and four turnovers.

Lewis has had among the greatest dropoffs in scoring, shooting percentage and three-point percentage. He went from 52 percent shooting in Orlando's sweep of Charlotte to 55.6 percent shooting in the sweep of Atlanta to 25 percent shooting with the Celtics -- secure in the knowledge he can't get open without Turkoglu setting him up. Lewis, who can score 20 in his sleep if left alone, is averaging (get this) 5.0 points in this series, while shooting 7.7 percent from three-point range after hitting 46.2 percent of his threes against Charlotte and Atlanta.

Asked about the team's limits this year as compared to last, Nelson said: "We'd been a great group all year, very together in what we were doing. I don't want to blame it on [Turkoglu's absence] now."

Somebody's going to have to draw a double-team to create open space for shooters, but it won't be Howard, who seems more interested in shooting the ball underhanded from half court before games than developing a couple of reliable low-post moves that will make him more than a one-dimensional player. He'll never be a serious threat to be the league's best player until he works as hard on low-post offense as he does on his upper body.

Usually on an off day like this coaches are plotting adjustments. But what is Van Gundy to do if he has no all-star caliber playmaker on his roster and the Celtics aren't about to break the game plan defensively and leave Orlando's shooters open? Nelson said he's going to have to get into the paint and break down the Celtics defense. Good luck. J.J. Redick actually has done a good job on a few such plays but he's rarely on the floor longer than 20 minutes.

Van Gundy, searching desperately for answers and perhaps even theories, said, "We're thinking too much on offense, and we're not thinking enough at the defensive end."

It all sounds like gobbledygook when the other team has 23 assists to your 10, and 17 turnovers to their eight, when you're 8 for 30 shooting three-pointers and that's supposed to be the strength of your team, and when you get out-hustled at both ends of the floor. The play when Rondo chased down Orlando's Jason Williams for a loose ball, diving to grab it and getting up to score the layup while J-Will looked around in a daze, is bound to be the signature on this series. As Nelson said of his team, "You can think you're out there playing hard, but the film doesn't lie. There's no excuse for the performance we had [in Game 3] and I include myself. I start with myself. The easiest thing to do when things go badly is to just shut it down, and that's what we did last night."

Van Gundy, charged with being the group psychologist, said it was up to the team to "be strong, stay together, have a real belief in what we're doing. When you get in this situation all those things present a huge psychological challenge."


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