Thoughts On the Game: At an Arm’s Length

The Orlando Magic are coming off a trip to the NBA finals and feature a roster that’s fit for a return trip this season. The Nets, by most accounts, will struggle to win 30 games this year and are destined to experience a lot of growing pains this season, especially in the early-going. That’s what last night’s pairing of the Magic and Nets looked like on paper. The end results didn’t deviate.

This was one of those games where I looked at the score at halftime and couldn’t believe the Nets were only down 6 points. “Superman” Dwight Howard had posted a double-double in the first quarter, en route to a 20 point, 22 rebound (and 4 block) effort. Brook Lopez, who looked like a superhero himself in the season opening loss to Minnesota, wasn’t even in the class of one of Lex Luthor’s henchman against Howard. Lopez was struggling to get any kind of position on Howard in the post all night and picked up three fouls early in the first half, and then two more in the third quarter, which limited him to 25 minutes and 11 points for the night.

As for one of the big headlines going into the game – Vince Carter got off to one of those fast starts where you thought he was about to get his eff-you Toronto game going.  The very first possession, Carter blew by Courtney Lee for a quick lay-up and two points. When he made his first three-pointer at the 6:39 mark, he even got a trademark, “VC, Three!” from PA-man Gary Sussman. By that point, the fascination with Vince’s return had passed for me, and I just wanted to see somebody stop the guy.

As it turned out, Lee was finally able to stop VC after Vince stepped on Courtney’s foot towards the end of the second quarter. Carter went down in a heap, spraining his ankle and did not return for the rest of the game.

But even with these somewhat ill-gotten breaks, the Nets were just never in this game. At one point, play-by-play man Ian Eagle described it as “an arm’s length” lead for the Magic and I thought that phrase just summed things up perfectly. The Nets would chip away, getting the lead down to 10 or 9 points. Rafer Alston even found some semblance of a jump shot tonight, hitting a pair of treys en route to 10 points off the bench. But the Magic always seemed to have an answer.

Former Net Ryan Anderson, one of two starters obtained by the Magic in the Vince Carter trade, had a hand in the game of keep-away in the third quarter. After a driving dunk by Chris Douglas-Roberts cut the lead to 61-56 Magic with 4:57 left in the third, Anderson responded with a layup of his own, then two free throws 30 seconds later, than a slam dunk of the Jameer Nelson assist 30 seconds after that.

Meanwhile, Anderson’s counterpart on the Nets side, Yi Jianlian, put together another one of his games where he showed flashes of something special, but still struggled in key moments. In a radical departure from last year, Yi actually scored the bulk of his 12 points from within 10 feet of the basket on an assortment of dunks, short jumpers and even a lefty hook post move I didn’t even know was in his arsenal. But he still struggled on the defensive end, getting absolutely rocked by Brandon Bass in third quarter when playing on-ball.

Whereas Wednesday’s night game felt like a glimpse into the future, despite the absolutely wretched finish, tonight was a reminder of what could make this particular Nets season feel long and aggravating. A superior opponent is in-town, and despite some of the emotion attached to the return of Vince Carter, the Nets were just never really a factor in this game. The game could have continued for four more quarters, and the Magic probably would have maintained their double-digit lead with ease.

Key Plays:

5:00, 1st Quarter: The evolution of Yi Jianlian on the offensive end is going to ultimately come down to how he can utilize his height and length closer to the rim. With about 5 minutes to go in the first quarter, Yi gave us a glimpse of what these kinds of tools in his arsenal would look like. He gets the ball on the right side wing about 15 feet away from the basket with his back to Brandon Bass. He takes two dribbles  to the top of the right post and lowers his right shoulder into Bass to create some space. With the space created, he faces the rim and sinks a 10-foot fadeaway jumper over Bass. He doesn’t release the shot until the absolute apex of his jump, utilizing the entirety of his 7-foot frame.

6:50, 2nd Quarter: The Magic’s game plan on Brook Lopez was even effective when Dwight Howard wasn’t in the game. Here, Lopez gets the ball about 15 feet away from the basket with about 4 seconds left on the shot clock. With his front to the basket, Marcin Gortat didn’t allow Lopez an opportunity to dribble deeper into the post, forcing him away from the hoop. With the shot clock about to expire, Lopez was forced into an ugly right hook from 10-feet out for the miss. He never got within 10 feet of the basket.

5:16, 3rd Quarter: Teams are absolutely daring Chris Douglas-Roberts to take jumpers right now, which he’s really not hitting with any kind of consistency.  For CDR to get points, he’s going to have to take advantage of defensive mismatches like here in the third, where off the offensive rebound, Ryan Anderson was on Chris  about 20 feet away from the hoop. Chris totally fakes out Anderson with a stutter step to his right before driving the ball into the lane and dunking it in what appeared to be one swift motion.

5:18, 4th Quarter: As much as I want to praise Yi for being aggressive offensively and getting more block attempts so far this season, he still has a lot of work to do to become even an adequate on-ball defender. In addition to leaving Ryan Anderson open from beyond the arc numerous times throughout the game, at this point in the fourth, with the Nets cutting the lead to 10, Brandon Bass gets the ball on the weak side about 15 feet away from the hoop, just beyond the left elbow. Yi totally overplays Bass to the right and is even waving his right hand in Bass’ face like it’s Rucker Park.  Bass easily goes left and blows by Yi, getting to the hoop where he reversed the layup in with his right hand.

Other Bullet Points:

  • It was nice to see Courtney Lee continue to shoot, despite another tough night from the field (6-17). The best part was, he sunk his first shot attempt last night, a little fadeaway jumper over Vince Carter in the first quarter.
  • I can’t help but feel there’s something off with Devin Harris. He’s been atrocious from the field the first two games in, and he looks totally flat-footed on defense. Things started picking up in the fourth when he hit three consecutive jumpers from about 18-feet out, but the Magic had all but iced the game at that point.
  • If Brook keeps running the floor like he did on a fast break with about 6:15 left in the third quarter, he’s going to have no problems adding a few extra points nightly to his PPG. Lopez was rewarded for running the break with Devin Harris, who floated the ball in the air for Brook, who then layed it home.
  • So sue me, I like what Eduardo Najera brings to the Nets when he’s healthy. Just an example of the little things he does, with about 8:47 left in the second quarter, Najera gets the ball in the right corner and fakes the three, causing Brandon Bass to practically jump into the Nets bench. Meanwhile, Rafer Alson is able to snake his way out of the post to beyond the arc, where he gets the pass from Najera and calmly sinks the three.
  • The box score won’t show it, but just because the Magic only shot 29 percent from three-point land doesn’t mean the perimeter D still wasn’t a problem. Many of those misses were uncontested. Ryan Anderson and JJ Redick specifically, missed a couple of wide open three-pointers.
  • On the positive side, the Nets didn’t have their first turn over until about 4 minutes were left in the first half, a huge improvement from Wednesday night against the Timberwolves.
  • Your +/- champion of the evening for the Nets was Rafer Alston, who finished with +6, and finally hit some open jumpers for the first time since training camp opened.

More Info:

NAS Quick Recap

Game Flow

Orlando Magic Daily Recap

Third Quarter Collapse Recap

Howard the Dunk Recap