Though the Magic ultimately did ride their usual avenues to victory, it was much closer than I expected it to be (which shouldn't surprise many, as I'm a pretty awful Miss Cleo).
With Orlando's long ball not falling at its usual second-best-in-the-NBA clip (41.8% coming into tonight's game), the Magic relied on the force that we call Dwight Howard. Howard and the rest of the Magic again ground the Bobcats frontcourt into paste tallying 50 points in the paint. Coupled with that, their seven treys and free throw shooting sustained them against a motivated Bobcats squad despite Orlando's shooting woes.
But more than that, the Bobcats rebounded from a head-shaking performance against Cleveland, showing improvement in just about all areas from most players. The defensive game plan was to not double on Howard and to force the Magic to win from the outside. Giving credit where credit is due, Orlando did just that, but it wasn't easy. Howard got into early foul trouble, which forced Orlando Head Coach Stan Van Gundy to bench him with about seven minutes remaining in the third quarter. The Bobcats took advantage with Orlando's offense unable to create inside without Howard. Gerald Henderson, Kemba Walker and Bismack Biyombo were the main beneficiaries of this, combining for 30 points on 15 field goal attempts in the first half. Even with Howard fighting foul trouble, he piled on 14 points on eight field goal attempts, nine rebounds and two blocks before the half came to a close.
But the Bobcats cooled down in the second half. After knocking down four of eight three-pointers in the first half, Charlotte would hit only one of their nine attempts in the second half. Gerald Henderson took a single shot in the quarter and Dwight Howard was too tough for the Bobcats to contain. Entering the fourth, the two teams were tied. The stalling Bobcats offense regained momentum on the shoulders of Henderson, who took advantage of his speed against Turkoglu to drive into the paint and draw fouls all night. But it wouldn't be enough as the Magic held off the Bobcats with their inside-out play, particularly on a Ryan Anderson three assisted by Howard.
Special kudos go to two players tonight, at least in my eyes. Gerald Henderson has earned much acclaim for taking it upon himself to drive to the rim, where he connects on 68.8% of his shots (per Hoopdata.com). In turn, he's scoring more efficiently and getting to the free-throw line much more often. We've known his midrange game is solid, but if Henderson is focused enough to sustain this effort, it will be quite the rewarding improvement.
The second player has to be Bismack Biyombo. After riding the pine the whole night against the Cavs, Biyombo impressed many in facing the challenge of Dwight Howard. Maybe it was being more rested than everyone (the Magic also played last night), but honestly, it makes little difference. Biyombo was easily the most effective defender against Howard. He muscled in against Howard for rebounding position and refused to let Howard have any easy shots. His hands were quick and showed good instincts in getting his hands up, forcing Howard and others into bad shots. On offense, things were even more surprising. Biyombo finished the game with a perfect five-for-five shooting night. A few of these were dunks resulting from slipping the pick and roll coverage or running the fastbreak well, while the others came from hook shots and layups. Sure, they weren't the smoothest of post moves, but for someone who most called extremely raw offensively, this was encouraging. The worst play for him was undoubtedly a sequence in which he tripped whilst guarding Howard in the post. Howard's feet then got tangled as he moved into the space where Biyombo was previously. The falling Howard hit the undefended layup and Biyombo was called for a foul. Still, Biyombo had a terrific night. Hopefully this type of performance is just a taste of what we'll see the rest of the season. Biyombo recorded 11 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks in 21 minutes.
Kemba Walker quietly had a decent night after his shockingly bad shooting night on Monday. His scoring was better, hitting 15 points on 13 shots, including a couple threes. More than that, we're watching him develop as a passer. Contrasting with his earlier performances, Kemba is seeing his teammates better on the pick and roll and is showing marked improvement in finding fellow Bobcats in other situations too. He racked up six assists tonight while also grabbing four rebounds and a pair of steals. He still tends to be mistake-prone (as rookies tend to be) but I though he was fine tonight.
D.J. Augustin's night was merely mediocre. He had 13 points on 12 shots, four rebounds, four steals and five assists, but also had a career-high in turnovers with eight.
Tyrus Thomas had another forgettable game, shooting two-for-ten for a whopping seven points. His early play in drawing fouls on Howard was instrumental in the Bobcats early play. That said, his shots wasn't falling and he couldn't get much of anything falling against Howard, nor could he rebound well. It looks like he really needs to work on his strength.
In other news, D.J. White didn't play at all, getting a DNP-CD (Coach's Decision). Puzzling. This team really needs to free up the mosh pit at power forward.
P.S. Cory Higgins, please stop shooting so much.