The Orlando Magic were holding their own in the Southeast division after a Dec. 19 victory over the Wizards brought them to within a game of .500. Unfortunately, that game included a devastating injury to Glenn Davis, the team’s leading front court scorer and second best rebounder.
Davis suffered a sprained left shoulder sidelining him for at least 4-6 weeks and the Magic have felt the impact of his absence going 0-4 since the injury occurred. On Friday, the team traveled to Washington where they faced the league’s most pathetic team in the Wizards, but were unable to overcome a convincing effort from Jordan Crawford and Nene.
It isn’t a case of Orlando failing to compete. Before falling 105-97 on Friday night, the Magic lost the last three games by less than five points. Rather, it’s a matter of the team struggling to defend the paint that is costing them games. Over the last four games, Orlando has been outscored in the paint three times and is beginning to struggle on the boards with Gustavo Ayon playing a starting role.
Against the Wizards, the Magic were outrebounded 47-41, a category that they were previously holding their own in. Without Davis in the lineup, Nikola Vucevic is forced to play an even bigger part in keeping the Magic from being pushed around, as he has picked his averages up to 15 points and 12 rebounds, but is that enough?
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The Wizards were able to push the ball into Nene’s hands on Friday night, fueling a season best 23 point, 11 rebound performance as he matched up against Ayon or Vucevic at the power forward spot. While Davis isn’t the greatest defender, he was averaging numbers that match his career best at a steal and 0.7 blocks per game. That defensive presence is missing now and the Magic are looking more vulnerable because of it.
Blaming Davis’ absence for Orlando’s troubles, however, is a bit extreme. On Friday night, Jordan Crawford led the Wizards with a 27 point, 6 assist performance off the bench that helped inspire good ball movement amongst a Washington team that ranks 23rd in assists per game. Kevin Seraphin filled in adequately off the bench as well with 17 points of his own. Those two are part of the reason Washington has the fourth best scoring bench in the league, whereas the Magic are 18th and rely heavily on JJ Redick for bench production.
The biggest factor in this game that should excite Wizards fans and horrify Orlando’s was the ability of Washington to overcome what was once a 17 point lead early in the game for the Magic. Washington was provided with additional bench scoring from Garrett Temple who finished with 13 points, 6 assists and 6 rebounds and simply wore down Orlando.
In a year which has seen at least one Wizard fan turn his back on the team on Youtube and others offer to pay someone to take their tickets on Craigslist, it’s somewhat of a relief to know that the they can still entertain on any given night. Randy Wittman will be concerned with his team’s fascination with getting off to a slow start, but that will pale in comparison to Jacque Vaughn’s concern over how his team failed to protect such an early big lead.
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Arron Afflalo and JJ Redick combined for 49 points on Friday while Jameer Nelson got off to a hot start in the first quarter and finished with 16. Despite this, they were unable to hang onto to a victory because they allowed 80 points over the final three quarters, ending a 12 game streak of holding opponents under 100 points. Without Davis, someone will have to show the necessary hustle on the defensive end to keep the Magic afloat until his return.
Rookie Andrew Nicholson is going to quickly become a candidate for ascension in the Magic lineup as Ayon struggles to deal with playing the power forward position. Vaughn has shown he can develop players since coming to Orlando, having turned Vucevic into a viable center and Maurice Harkless into a respectable small forward in his rookie season.
But the big question for the Magic and their fans isn’t who will replace Davis, it’s how can the team maintain its defensive intensity that got them back to .500 in the first place? The answer isn’t crystal clear, but if Vaughn wants his team to compete he’ll have to figure it out fast. The Magic play six teams with winning records over the next seven games before finally seeing the Wizards again on Jan. 14. Whether or not a repeat of tonight occurs then is dependant on Vaughn’s ability to make the adjustment.