The Orlando Magic are in the midst of a five-game skid, with some pretty ugly results to go with this fact. Nestled in among this dirty streak is a hammering at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs, as well as a heartbreaking overtime defeat at the hands of the Philadelphia 76ers. Worse was to come though, in the form of a defeat at the hands of one-time Magic icon Dwight Howard, now playing for the Houston Rockets. Worryingly, Howard did more than just play well against his former employers.
Firstly the facts. Howard scored 20 points and had 22 rebounds for the Rockets in the 98-88 win. In doing so, Howard became the first Rocket since Ralph Sampson in 1985-86 to grab 18 or more rebounds in three straight games. Fair to say Howard is becoming more comfortable in his new surroundings then. From now until the day he retires, the Magic will forever bump it up a gear when up against their all-time leading scorer and this contest was no different. Except that the intensity kind of petered out the longer the contest went on. Losing a game to a better team is one thing and having a night when your shots just will not fall is also understandable. In fact, when doughy power forward Glen Davis is your leading scorer for the game with 18 points, you know something is not quite right. All of this is excusable however, but it is the defensive effort that is not.
The Rockets finished the game 10-for-33 from 3-point territory, not horrible numbers if you’re in a Magic uniform. It was the 7-for-11 the Rockets made at one point though that really highlights how lackluster Orlando were on the defensive end. Allowing James Harden to grab eight boards and Chandler Parsons and Dwight Howard to snag 35 between them shows a real lack of effort when the team does not have the ball that will continue to hurt them going forward. The inside presence for the team was almost non-existent, ironic when you consider it was their former Defensive Player of the Year center who inflicted most of the damage on the Orlando team. If Dwight Howard, and indeed Shaquille O’Neal before him, have taught the Magic anything, it is not to depend on jolly centers alone to carry you to the promised land. Yet, history may once again be repeating itself, with the game against Houston an eerie reminder of what could come down the line for Orlando once again.
Nikola Vucevic missed his third straight game for the Magic with a left ankle problem. Had he been on the court, the defensive effort absolutely would not have been so putrid. More than that, the Rockets would not have crucified the Magic in the paint if he was on the court. Not the most physically intimidating center by any means, Vucevic has vastly underrated footwork that allows him to both contain physical specimens like Howard, while also grabbing a healthy amount of rebounds for his team too. The fact he was not on the court tells us more about how much Orlando have come to rely on him already than if he had suited up and played the game. Every great team needs star players and Vucevic is fast becoming one of them, but counting on him to do all the dirty work inside while getting little help on the defensive end sounds freakishly similar to a situation the Magic were in roughly five years ago.
Orlando is going to lose a lot more games like this because it is not yet close to being a great team. That is a fact that cannot be changed. What can be changed however is the defensive effort the players put in on a nightly basis for the team. It is that hustle that can grab a team additional boards and with it, the odd win here and there. As mentioned above, the Magic will always turn up the heat when it comes time to play against Howard. He will do the same thing on a personal level though, and with no Nikola Vucevic around to contain him as best as he could, there was only ever going to be one outcome. It is the effort which faltered as the game went on however, that will grind the gears of Magic fans most though. More worrying still, is the dawning realization that Vucevic may be primed to be the next great center of the NBA who eventually leaves to try his hand at winning elsewhere. Orlando must do everything they can to make sure this does not happen, as it took the ghost of Dwight Howard just 48 minutes to highlight just how much the Magic have come to rely on their young center already. A scary thought.