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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Magic Pound Pacers, Move Closer to Capturing Second Overall Seed

Vince Carter scored 14 of his game-high 21 points in the first quarter as the Orlando Magic built a 42-18 lead en route to a wire to wire 118-98 win over Indiana in the Pacers' final home game of the season. A home win against the lowly Philadelphia 76ers in the season finale on Wednesday will clinch home court advantage for Orlando against any possible playoff opponent other than the Cleveland Cavaliers--and, unlike some teams that are resting certain players heading into the postseason, Stan Van Gundy's Magic are using their regular rotation and making their best effort to obtain every possible win. Point guard Jameer Nelson flirted with a triple double (15 points, eight assists, seven rebounds) and Dwight Howard controlled the paint (12 points, 11 rebounds, four blocked shots) as all ten Magic players who participated scored at least six points, with seven players reaching double figures. Not only did the Magic jump on the Pacers right from the start--leading 19-9 less than six minutes into the contest--they withstood the inevitable Indiana run and did not allow the Pacers to get closer than nine points the rest of the way. A.J. Price scored a team-high 19 points off of the bench for the Pacers and tied two others with a team-high four assists. Danny Granger added 18 points but shot just 6-19 from the field and Mike Dunleavy pumped in 18 points on 7-11 shooting. The Pacers shot just 36-88 (.409) from the field but their defense was even more atrocious than their anemic offense, as Indiana repeatedly conceded dunks, layups and wide open jumpers. The Pacers had played well recently--winning four in a row and 10 of their last 12--but they just looked completely outmatched versus the Magic.

Howard was a one man dunking/shot blocking wrecking crew in the game's first 10 minutes, powering home three monster jams and rejecting three Pacer shots before a questionable second foul sent Howard to the bench. Once Howard reached the sideline, he griped to the media members seated on the baseline, "See how they do me? It's been like this all year" but within moments he was back to being his usual jovial self, joking with courtside fans, playfully tapping Vince Carter on the head when Carter was not looking and then pretending that Rashard Lewis was the guilty party after Carter turned around. During a stoppage in play, Howard talked to referee Pat Fraher about the disputed call. Howard gestured to indicate that he had not committed a foul but was simply trying to free his arm after being grabbed. However, I could not quite make out their conversation so I asked Howard about it after the game and he told me, "I just told him that I thought that the guy was holding me when I went up to get the rebound. He thought differently. I don't know what to say about it. I know sometimes they say I am bigger and stronger than everybody--but guys should not be allowed to hold me and grab me and get away with it...We got the win and that is all that really matters."

Howard and the other Magic players genuinely seemed to enjoy bantering with the fans seated near their bench, a group that included supporters of both teams. When one Pacers' fan quite loudly barked at Howard to stop whining and sit down, Howard smiled and responded that he was standing up not to complain to the referees but rather to "mess with my coach" (i.e., make fun of the way Coach Van Gundy was pacing the sidelines); instead of ratcheting up any possible hostility, Howard defused the situation with a joke. Late in the game as Carter watched the blowout from the bench, a young fan kept trying to get his attention; they finally made eye contact during a timeout and the boy grinned from ear to ear after Carter tossed him a plastic wristband that Carter had worn throughout the game: for the rest of the night, the kid looked at the wristband in wonderment, sliding it up and down his arm (Carter's wrist is probably thicker than the kid's biceps) and at one point proudly saying to some family members, "He actually wore this!" Other Magic players--including Howard and Matt Barnes--also gave away various items to fans before leaving the court.

Make no mistake, though, this fun-loving bunch is very serious about winning basketball games; much like the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Orlando Magic seem to be able to strike a delicate balance between being happy--even silly at times--without letting that get in the way of putting in the hard work that it takes to be a very successful team. During his postgame standup, Coach Van Gundy praised the Magic's overall focus and effort versus Indiana, declaring, "We obviously got off to a really good start in the game, particularly at the offensive end, and Dwight held our defense together by blocking shots early on. In the second quarter we turned the ball over and we fouled a lot and they made a little run back but I thought that the first six minutes of the third quarter was our best defensive effort probably in a couple weeks. I thought that our guys really came out of the locker room and worked very, very, very hard. In the first six minutes they (the Pacers) only scored four points. We only scored 10 points--they (the Pacers) were playing hard, too--but I thought that our effort was great and that was good to see. I liked the effort we made at the defensive end."

Coach Van Gundy added that prior to the game he was "a little worried" because when he walked into the locker room some of the players "seemed a little tired" (the Magic had just played on Sunday, beating a Cleveland team that rested LeBron James, Shaquille O'Neal and Anthony Parker and did not use All-Stars Mo Williams or Antawn Jamison down the stretch of a close game) but that he was pleasantly surprised that once the game began his team's "focus was great." He also provided a comparison of regular season basketball versus playoff basketball: "I've said this all the time: I think that the regular season and the playoffs are two totally different tests. I think that the regular season is really about how many times you get yourself ready to play and get out there and give a great effort. I think that our team's record would indicate that we do that pretty damn well. In the playoffs, everybody is ready to play, so it really comes down to how good you are. I don't think that anyone is going to take a night off in the playoffs. I think that if you are a fan of our team and you are going to watch us on TV or come out to a game, you have to appreciate that our guys are going to give it a pretty damn good effort every single night--and usually they play pretty well."

*****************************
Notes From Courtside:

The 2009-10 Orlando Magic made two changes to the starting lineup that led the team to the 2009 NBA Finals, bringing in shooting guard Vince Carter and small forward Matt Barnes to replace Courtney Lee and Hedo Turkoglu respectively.

Carter placed second on the 2008-09 New Jersey Nets in both scoring (20.8 ppg) and assists (4.7 apg) as the team missed qualifying for the playoffs by five games, finishing with a 34-48 record; this season, Lee has averaged 12.3 ppg and 1.7 apg as the Nets' starting shooting guard while the team flirted with posting the worst record in NBA history before finally breaking the 10 win barrier (they are currently 12-69). Meanwhile, this season Carter ranks second in scoring (16.6 ppg) and third in assists (3.1 apg) for an Orlando team that is one win away from clinching the second overall seed in the 2010 playoffs.

Barnes averaged 10.2 ppg and 5.5 rpg while starting 40 of his 77 games for the 2009 Phoenix Suns, who went 46-36 but missed the playoffs by two games. This season, Barnes has averaged 8.7 ppg and 5.4 rpg while starting 56 of his 79 games for the Magic; Barnes' scoring has declined a bit but he is also averaging slightly fewer minutes and--more importantly--he has improved his field goal percentage to .486, the second best mark of his career. Turkoglu ranked third on the Magic in both scoring (16.8 ppg) and assists (4.9 apg) while shooting .413 from the field in 2008-09; this season, Turkoglu's numbers are down across the board (11.4 ppg, 4.1 apg, .408 field goal percentage) and his Toronto Raptors are in danger of missing the playoffs.

Both the individual numbers for these four players and Orlando's team numbers (the Magic improved from being the third seed in the East and fourth seed overall last season to the second seed in the East and likely the second seed overall this season) suggest that the Magic upgraded their roster with their offseason moves, though of course the final verdict will not be rendered until after the playoffs. Prior to the game, I spoke with Coach Van Gundy about how Carter has fit in with the Magic this year and the issue of teams resting healthy players as the season winds down:

Friedman: "Sometimes, players and coaches say that you never really know a player until you've had him in your locker room and you've seen him in practice. Now that you have had a full season with Vince Carter, what have you learned about Vince that maybe you did not know before the Magic acquired him?"

Van Gundy: "I don't know that there is anything we didn't know but he's a smart guy, he's a very good teammate, an unselfish guy. Also, I think that like most veteran guys as they get along in their careers, he just wants to win. He's done all of the individual things--he's scored a lot of points, he's been in All-Star games, he's done all of that stuff and now it's just about winning. I think it's always great as a coach when you get guys at that point in their careers."

Friedman: "A lot of times when people talk about your team they act as if you basically swapped Turkoglu for Carter but really Barnes is your starting small forward and Carter is playing Lee's position so from your standpoint do you really look at it like Carter should do what Turkoglu did last year and fill his role? How do you look at it from a coach's standpoint in terms of Carter's role this year compared to Turkoglu's role last year?"

Van Gundy: "Well, it's similar in the sense that they are the guys we go to a lot, particularly down the stretch, but they are different players; Turkoglu is 6-10, Vince is a (6-6) two guard but they are similar in the roles that they play for us: get them the ball late in the game, run a lot of pick and rolls with them, very similar stuff."

Friedman: "Are you satisfied with the ratio of Carter's free throw attempts to his three point attempts? Is there a certain way that you look at those numbers?"

Van Gundy: "No, I don't (specifically look at those numbers). At times, Vince is not as aggressive as he could be and we talk about that but for the most part Vince has been great picking his spots and being very aggressive--particularly since the first of February. I think that if you go from there on, it would be hard to play more efficiently than Vince has."

After a dreadful January in which Carter--hobbled by an ankle injury--averaged just 8.7 ppg on .284 field goal shooting, he scored 18.6 ppg on .515 field goal shooting in February and he averaged 17.6 ppg on .494 field goal shooting in March.

Friedman: "Is that something that you keep stressing to Vince and reminding him about or by this point does he know that you want him to drive more and not settle for jumpers?"

Van Gundy: "You do (talk to him) and he knows but it's also about how the defense plays you. Vince is a smart guy. If you are going to play off of him or go under on his pick and rolls and stuff--you can't force the issue, either (by driving against a defense that is packed in the paint). You've got to play the game smart and you've got to take what the defense gives and I think he's good at that."

Friedman: "During yesterday's (Lakers-Trail Blazers) telecast, your brother brought up the point that he feels like the NBA should do something about teams resting players who are physically capable of playing. The NFL has talked about maybe doing something about this issue as well. What are your thoughts, not about particular teams, but in general--should there be a rule about this?"

Van Gundy: "It's impossible to do that. It sounds good in theory but the bottom line is that (if there were such a rule) then teams would just say that guys are hurt and the fact of the matter is that when you hit this part of the season everybody does have something bugging them. Who is to say who can play and who can't? To me, that is a great discussion to have--and fans, media, everybody can talk about it--but there is no way, there is absolutely no way, to enforce that. There is just none. So it will continue to happen. I think that the bigger problem (than playoff teams resting some players) is the people (teams) who are not in the playoffs who are sitting people to basically lose games and improve their draft status but, same thing, there is nothing you can do about that as a league. You can make your displeasure for it known but I don't think that there is anything they are going to be able to do and I think that every organization, every G.M., every coach, has to do what they think is the best thing for their franchise, for their team. If that includes resting some guys then that is what they have to do and I think that it needs to be settled within that team on how you are going to approach it. Whatever guys want to do is up to them. We all have different priorities."

Friedman: "Related to that issue, your brother mentioned that there was a year in which he sat Tracy McGrady for a couple games and afterward he looked back and regretted it. Also, Avery Johnson during a recent telecast mentioned that there was a season in which he sat Dirk Nowitzki for a couple games but he looks back on that as a mistake. You said that the league cannot compel anyone about this but from your personal standpoint--and I understand that the Magic have something to play for now in terms of the Lakers--if you were in a position in which you quote unquote have nothing to play for what is your personal philosophy in terms of resting people versus being concerned that they might get rusty and also worrying that key players might get injured?"

Van Gundy: "It goes beyond philosophy. Every situation is going to be different. You may look and say that you have a guy who is very fatigued, which is what I think that Mike Brown did with LeBron--this is a guy who plays huge minutes, takes on a huge role for them, so he needs some time off. Probably a good decision for them, with nothing to play for. Everybody's situation is different; you may have some thoughts as a coach, philosophically, but the bottom line is it's going to come down to specific situations and every one is going to be different."

***

During Indiana Coach Jim O'Brien's pregame standup, I asked him, "From what you've seen of the Magic this year, how would you say that Vince Carter has fit in and how would you compare his role on the team this year to the role that Turkoglu had for them last year?"

Coach O'Brien responded, "I think that being able to get Carter when they knew that they were going to lose Turkoglu was really important. I think that lately Vince does not seem to be shooting the ball in the volumes that he normally does (Carter averaged 18.8 FGA/g in November, dipped all the way to 10.1 FGA/g in January and has averaged just under 13 FGA/g since February). Down the stretch, when you have a new guy who is key--like Carter--coming over to your team, it might take 60 or 70 games to get him totally comfortable with what is going on. I think that it is almost a wash from the standpoint of Turkoglu versus Carter but I would have to give Carter a little bit of an edge because of his total body of work throughout his career and I think that he will be very hungry heading into the playoffs."

***

After the game, I briefly spoke with Howard about the team's offseason personnel changes.

Friedman: "What are some of the similarities and some of the differences of having the ball in Vince Carter's hands in the fourth quarter versus having the ball in Hedo Turkoglu's hands?"

Howard: "They both can score. All we really care about is getting the ball in the basket and playing defense. What will count in the playoffs is having someone like Vince who can finish games (on offense) but who can also play defense."

Friedman: "This will be the first time in 10 years that Vince Carter has not averaged at least 20 ppg. What kind of adjustment has that been for him?"

Howard: "All of us have had to adjust to something. We have a lot of scorers and we understand that. We just have to, as a unit, be able to sacrifice. We sacrifice a lot of different things for the betterment of the team. Vince knew coming in that he didn't have to average 20 points for us to win."

***

Naturally, any analysis of Vince Carter's impact on the Magic would not really be complete without hearing from the man himself. I interviewed Carter after the game.

Friedman: "This is going to be the first season in 10 years that you have not averaged at least 20 ppg. Talk a little bit about the adjustment you had to make--"

Carter: "We're winning."

Friedman: "It's not a difficult adjustment? I've talked to players like Bob McAdoo and Mark Aguirre--players who were big time scorers at one point in their careers before going to championship contending teams, teams that ultimately won championships, and they had to make a certain kind of adjustment and in some cases it is a difficult adjustment to make."

Carter: "It's not for me. I'm all for playing with a great team like this. I'll do whatever I am needed to do--if it's scoring, I'll do it. We have balanced scoring, so that's it. At this point in my career, to go through ups and downs and see different things, I understand what it takes. I see that the teams that win (championships) have more than one go to guy and they work together. This team has done a great job with that. Winning is the most important thing, not scoring."

Friedman: "If you go through a portion of your career shooting 20-25 attempts per game then you know that if you go through a streak when you are missing shots then you can just shoot your way out of it. That is not the case when you are on a team where you get fewer attempts, so isn't that situation more difficult?"

Carter: "Sure. It is. It's tough. I mean, I didn't know what you were going to ask but it is tough. I had a month like that but I think that if you believe in your game then you will shoot your way out of it regardless of the amount of attempts or lack thereof. I just have to make sure that I take good shots and make them count."

Friedman: "A lot of people compare you to Turkoglu even though you are a different size and you play a different position. How do you feel about what your role is on the team?"

Carter: "Great. I feel great. I think what I bring to the table is good enough and I've proven that all year. I have nothing to prove and I could care less what other people say. He's a great player and he did unbelievable things. I sat there in the stands and watched him play in the (2009 Eastern) Conference Finals, but that's not a concern of mine."

Friedman: "You are a player who can shoot the three and who can also drive to the hoop. How do you find the right balance so you don't get too happy with the jump shot? As you know, sometimes people say that you shoot too many fadeaway jumpers."

Carter (emphatically): "I don't care about what anybody says. I am going to play my game."

Friedman: "From your standpoint--"

Carter: "That's what's it. I'm going to play my game. So, it all depends on what is happening. If the jump shot is there, I'm going to take it. If I can go to the basket, I'm going to go. That's what I was asked to do and that's what I'm going to do."

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:30 AM

6 comments

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6 Comments:

At Tuesday, April 13, 2010 4:50:00 PM, Blogger Bhel Atlantic said...

It seems that Vince Carter didn't like your questions, or didn't care to give you the kind of analysis you were looking for. He gave you a lot of platitudes. Do you think he was just being evasive, or do you think NBA players genuinely don't think about the game on the analytical level that you were asking for?

 
At Tuesday, April 13, 2010 5:10:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Bhel Atlantic:

Maybe he was surprised that someone asked him intelligent questions. If you read through the whole interview, he was a bit curt at first but by the time I asked him about the challenge of finding one's rhythm with a reduced number of shot attempts he started giving more detailed answers. I think that many players' "default mode" is to assume that journalists are going to ask dumb questions--a reasonable assumption, by the way--so they have their, as you termed it, "platitudes" ready. If they see that the interviewer actually knows what he is talking about then they start to warm to the task.

I had only interviewed Carter a couple times before--both times in group sessions many years ago--so he may not have remembered me and thus was probably a bit guarded/cautious early in the interview. When you look at how many stupid questions are asked--and how often players and coaches are misquoted--I certainly understand why players and coaches may be somewhat reticent early in an interview with someone who they do not know very well.

By the way, I did not delete your comment from my post about Scottie Pippen and the Hall of Fame; something is wrong with the comments function in the blogger platform right now. Hopefully, blogger will correct the problem and restore your comment (I have no way to do that).

 
At Tuesday, April 13, 2010 8:00:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You mentioned resting players with nothing to play for and resting players to get better draft odds.

What are your thoughts on "resting players" to dictate playoff matches? A higher seeded team might be suffering late injury woes while the lower seeded one might be playing their best stretch at the end of the season.

How important is that winning momentum heading into the playoffs?

Z

 
At Tuesday, April 13, 2010 10:38:00 PM, Blogger vednam said...

Nice article, David. The interviews were interesting, as usual.

Since you have been critical in the past of teams resting players late in the season, and since it is an issue you bring up in this article, I'm interested in your personal opinion of Cleveland's decision to sit LeBron.

I'm guessing you will do a playoff preview at some point, but I'm especially interested in what you think about the situation in the West. The Lakers have been playing their worst basketball of the season, yet no other team stands out, so I think they still have to be favoured over anyone in the conference. With the exception of the Blazers (who seem out of it for good now that Roy is injured), it's tough to even separate the other teams. Who do you think is the biggest threat to the Lakers?

 
At Wednesday, April 14, 2010 5:45:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

In general, I don't like the idea of "resting" players who are healthy. I find it interesting that two former coaches who guided teams to the NBA Finals (Jeff Van Gundy and Avery Johnson) recently said that they think it was a mistake when they rested healthy stars. Charles Barkley has also said that "rest" is the reason that his 1993 Suns were almost upset in the first round before they rallied and advanced to the Finals (the Suns played very sluggishly in their first couple playoff games that year).

My issue with the Indianapolis Colts has always been two-fold: (1) The NFL season is much shorter than the NBA season, so "resting" someone for one or two NFL games is like sitting out an NBA player for five or 10 games--and the situation is really even worse than that for an NFL team, because an NFL practice cannot come close to simulating the speed/contact level of a game; (2) The Colts have repeatedly kept star players in late season games just long enough to reach various individual statistical milestones and then rested those players. What if Peyton Manning or Reggie Wayne got hurt while pursuing those marks? Why should individual stats even matter if the stated goal is for the team to be healthy enough to win the Super Bowl? History shows that every time the Colts rested players they did not win the Super Bowl but the one year that circumstances forced them to play hard all year they did win the Super Bowl.

I have not comprehensively researched this but it seems to me that in the "good old days"--say, 10, 15, 20 years ago--teams rarely rested players and if they did so it was only in the very last game of the season.

That said, the Cavs are so much better than whoever they will face in the first round that they could "rest" some of their starters and still win that series without too much trouble--and at full strength they likely will sweep either Toronto or Chicago.

I will indeed post a playoff preview once the matchups are finalized. The biggest threat to the Lakers in the West is the health status of Kobe Bryant; if Bryant is healthy enough to score at least 30 ppg while shooting at least .450-.460 from the field and making his usual defensive/rebounding/playmaking contributions then the Lakers will return to the Finals. If Bryant's health continues to curtail his production to the extent that it has recently then the Lakers could even be vulnerable in the first round. From a matchup standpoint, Dallas or a fully healthy San Antonio team probably would provide the biggest challenge to the Lakers.

 
At Wednesday, April 14, 2010 5:53:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Z:

I am not sure that I understand your question--or, more precisely, you seem to be asking two different questions, so I will try to answer each one.

1) I do not support "resting" players to try to manipulate playoff seeding. If players are healthy then they should play. Anything else is bush league.

2) I think momentum is somewhat overrated, at least regarding a team's record in the final five or 10 regular season games. Playoff series are decided by matchup considerations. A winning streak comprised of victories against various random teams is not a reliable indicator of how Team A will do against Team B in a seven game series (nor is a losing streak necessarily a reliable indicator, either, unless the losing is being caused by some factor that could play a role in the postseason--i.e., injuries to key players).

For instance, the Lakers' record in the past 10 or 12 games is irrelevant; all that matters is how healthy Kobe Bryant will be once the playoffs begin.

 

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