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Thursday, November 29, 2007

Another Big Night for Dwight Howard, Another Road Win for Orlando

Dwight Howard is becoming perhaps the dominant low post force in the NBA and that is a big reason that Orlando has an NBA-best 9-1 road record after a 110-94 win in Seattle. Howard scored a career-high 39 points and controlled the paint at both ends of the court with 16 rebounds and five blocked shots. Hedo Turkoglu also had a double double (15 points, 10 rebounds), helping Orlando to overcome a subpar game by Rashard Lewis, who shot just 3-19 from the field in his return to the city where he started his NBA career; he finished with nine points and 10 rebounds. Starting point guard Jameer Nelson (six points, three assists, five rebounds) and his backup Carlos Arroyo (two points, a career-high 14 assists) each played exactly 24 minutes, with Arroyo getting the bulk of the second half playing time. Kevin Durant led Seattle with 22 points but he shot just 6-21 from the field, including a game-high four attempts that were blocked; Durant continues to struggle both with his shot selection and with finishing shots in traffic in the paint. On the positive side, Durant converted all 10 of his free throws, grabbed six rebounds and dished off four assists.

Watching NBA TV's pregame show, one would never have suspected that Durant is shooting less than .400 from the field and committing more than three turnovers per game despite not being a primary ballhandler (2.1 apg). Rick Kamla, who has never seen or met a player who he didn't love, declared, "Kevin Durant's been sensational, thus far." He paused a beat before apparently realizing how ridiculous that sounded, then hastily added, "...in a few games and we are obviously hoping for more of that from KD tonight." Pete Vecsey is notorious for blasting players left and right, but he seemingly has turned over a new leaf: he praised Durant's shooting touch as a "stroke of genius." Fred Carter stuck to his guns that he would have taken Durant number one overall instead of Greg Oden, calling Durant a "finished product" who can dribble, pass and shoot, in contrast to Oden's alleged deficiencies in these areas; I'm not worried about Oden's dribbling, I seem to recall him shooting free throws left handed when his right (shooting) wrist was injured and he rebounded and blocked shots well enough to carry Ohio State to the NCAA Championship Game last season, a lot further than Mr. "Finished Product" took his team. I understand that Durant has a certain amount of potential but why does everyone act like he is tearing up the league when the reality is that he is clanging shots off of the rim left and right for a bad team?

Durant is first on the Sonics in minutes, points and field goal attempts but ranks eighth in field goal percentage among the top nine players in the rotation; combine that with the fact that Seattle has matched the worst start in franchise history (2-14, previously "accomplished" in the team's inaugural season in 1967-68) and you have a recipe for some unhappy veterans. Consider this sequence from early in the game: the Sonics had the ball on a semi-fast break and Durant spotted up on the right baseline and raised his arms in the universal "I'm open, pass me the ball" gesture. Instead, point guard Delonte West waved him off, sending Durant to the weak side so that West could run a pick and pop play with Kurt Thomas, who drained a jumper to make the score 6-4 Seattle. There is no question that Seattle's ownership and coaching staff are on board with Durant taking a ton of shots and (hopefully) developing into a good player in the coming years but it is natural to wonder how long the other players will go along with this as Durant's misses and the team's losses rapidly add up.

Durant missed a layup (a soft attempt that Howard swatted away) and a three pointer before curling around a baseline screen and making his first basket, a smooth jumper that put Seattle up 12-11. A few possessions later, Durant wandered around the top of the key with his too-high dribble, then decided to attack the hoop, only to have the ball poked away; Turkoglu converted an uncontested fast break layup to put Orlando ahead, 15-12. Seattle inbounded and pushed the ball up the court, forcing the late arriving Turkoglu to pick up West while point guard Jameer Nelson switched to Durant. West missed a jumper, but Durant easily got the rebound over Nelson (who is generously listed at 6-0) and scored, a rare inside basket for Durant, who has shown no postup game so far.

Orlando also has a former College Player of the Year who is struggling to find his way; fortunately for the Magic, they are not depending on him to do very much. As I've predicted all along (and contrary to the sentiments expressed by ESPN's resident expert, David Thorpe), J.J. Redick has been a non-factor for Orlando. Prior to this game he had yet to score a single point this season while playing 20 minutes in five games but he managed to score 11 points on 4-5 shooting in 17 minutes versus Seattle; yes, it is nice to get your first extended run of the season against the worst team in the NBA. Redick checked in to the game for the first time at the 3:37 mark of the first quarter with Orlando leading 19-14. He soon hit a three pointer but--as will always be the case with him--whatever he provides on offense he will give back on defense; Redick failed to get through a screen, allowing his man Wally Szczerbiak to make a three pointer. Redick scored a rare basket in transition after the Magic got a steal--and then he was called for a blocking foul as Durant scored a layup of his own. Durant made the resulting free throw. Those were the final points of the first quarter and Orlando led 30-24 after the first 12 minutes. Howard topped both teams with 12 points, shooting 8-8 from the free throw line.

The Magic extended their lead to 40-30 by the 7:44 mark of the second quarter and then used a 9-0 burst near the end of the quarter to go up 57-39. Just when it seemed like the Magic were about to put the game away, Earl Watson and Szczerbiak made back to back three pointers to trim the margin to 57-45 at halftime. Howard already had 20 points and nine rebounds. Szczerbiak led Seattle with 13 points, while Durant had seven points, three rebounds and three assists.

Durant opened the third quarter with a step back jumper, but did not make another field goal until the 7:59 mark of the fourth quarter. Despite that drought, Seattle hung around and after Durant drove to the hoop, drew a foul on Keith Bogans and sank three straight free throws (Turkoglu was called for a technical foul) the Sonics pulled to within 62-56 with 7:47 left in the quarter. Orlando closed the quarter with a 21-12 run and led 83-68 going into the fourth quarter; Howard scored nine of the 21 points and Redick added six more, including an open three pointer. As commentator Steve Jones noted after that shot, "He can shoot it. What you have to know (as a defender) is that's all he can do. Make him do something else. The lack of thought sometimes hurts the Sonics in the biggest of ways and there is an example: you're covering everybody else and you let a guy who can stick it get a chance to get his confidence up, get a good look and knock it down. Now he is going to be a problem the rest of the game." Jones' point is a valid one, although Redick did not in fact score any more points the rest of the way.

The Sonics slowly chipped away at the Magic's lead and got to within 88-82 after a three point play by Durant, who drove to the hoop from the left wing, executed a nice spin move and flipped in a shot as Lewis fouled him. Durant soon drove to the hoop, drew another foul and sank two more free throws to bring Seattle to within four, 88-84. Then he converted another three point play, driving from the top of the key and drawing a foul while making a scoop shot to again make the margin four, 92-88 Orlando. Durant is shooting a terrible percentage from the field, is not a three point threat (.290 three point accuracy coming into this game) and has trouble finishing in traffic but he is shooting better than .800 from the free throw line so it is truly a mystery why anyone would foul him.

The reason that Seattle could get no closer than four points is that seemingly every time down the court Arroyo lobbed the ball to Howard for a dunk. With 5:18 left in the game, Durant drove yet again from the top of the key and drew a foul. Durant made both free throws and Orlando still clung to a 93-89 advantage; Durant had just scored 10 straight points for Seattle in less than three minutes and after that play, Jones said, "Maybe we're seeing Kevin Durant come of age in the sense of, 'I'm going to keep the heat on this team' and find a way to get the Sonics their first win at home." With Kurt Thomas and Chris Wilcox on the bench in foul trouble, Durant even guarded Howard on a few possessions, a situation that Jones termed "a matchstick versus a redwood." Durant used his long arms to try to deter entry passes and he received plenty of double-teaming help.

Alas, Durant's "coming of age" will have to wait for at least one more game. At the 3:57 mark, Durant tried yet another drive from the top of the key but this time the Magic avoided fouling him, he went up softly and Howard easily blocked his shot, sparking a fast break that culminated in a Bogans three pointer that put Orlando up 99-92. From that point on, the Magic's three point shooters had a field day because multiple Seattle defenders swarmed Howard in the paint; Orlando drained three three pointers in a little over a minute, bringing back memories of Shaquille O'Neal setting up camp in the post more than a decade ago while Dennis Scott, Nick Anderson and Penny Hardaway shot uncontested jumpers.

In my Eastern Conference Preview, I said that Orlando will long rue wasting a lottery pick on Redick and "either needs to add one more really good player or have Howard emerge as a legit MVP-level player in order to truly be a contender." One could argue that Turkoglu's career-high numbers thus far mean, in effect, that Orlando has added a "really good player"; his emergence as what Vecsey called a "near All-Star level player" combined with Howard indeed playing at an MVP level has enabled the Magic to challenge for the best record in the Eastern Conference. They had a similar start last year only to fade down the stretch but Howard's play is not a mirage, so the Magic will not likely have a late season slide this time around.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:59 AM

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