Thoughts on the Game: Orlando 104, New Jersey 88 — It Looked Good for a Second There

AP Photo/Julio Cortez

Well, at least LaMarcus Aldridge can sleep tonight. After Kris Humphries’ latest mammoth block on Dwight Howard, pictured above, Aldridge is no longer haunted by Hump’s rejection of his dunk attempt a few weeks ago.

As for the Nets, they probably spent some time counting sheep last night. After the game opened with some decent competitive effort from the Nets, the Magic thereafter decided they would try and ended up categorically walloping the Nets into submission by the end of the 48 minutes.

Let’s start with the palatable first half. The most interesting thing about the Nets’ play in the first two periods was the illusion of good defense that wasn’t even really that good. Orlando shot around 50 percent in the first half and was up 51-44 at the break, yet it seemed like the Nets were playing the role of defensive stopper. Certainly the factor that most attributed to the appearance of good defense was the fact that did not shoot a single free throw in the first half. If the Magic were shooting as well as they did AND shooting free throws at a regular rate, the game likely would have been out of hand early on.

In addition, there was a notable discrepancy in the play of the Nets’ starting five and second unit. The Nets looked much better, in fact, going against Orlando’s starters, with Devin Harris and Brook Lopez’s excelling and Humphries’ doing his usual dirty work. It certainly didn’t hurt that Howard was hampered for a large portion of the first half by foul trouble, leaving the basket largely undefended. In Howard’s absence, Harris had free reign to penetrate for the basket — as a result, he finished with 24 points on 9-of-15 shooting. Lopez was nearly as effective, putting up 20 on 8-of-15 shooting.

Despite their success, the Magic were firing on all cylinders, highlighted by the play of newcomers (or returners) Jason Richardson and Hedo Turkoglu. The duo combined for 24 points on 13-of-23 shooting, including 5-of-10 firing from downtown. Brandon Bass was also putting on his greatest Dirk Nowitzki impression, nailing everything from midrange: he finished with 11 points.

Then there was the second half. Everything fell apart. The coincidence of the Nets’ starting to foul and Howard’s not fouling anymore was a dangerous combination. Howard went to the free-throw line 13 times, and in typical Nets opponent fashion, hit 9 of those attempts. He’s following in Shaq’s footsteps of torturing the Nets with abnormally high free-throw percentages.

(An aside: Howard’s free-throw routine is way too long. He got called on it on Saturday, but he goes over 10 seconds every time he shoots the ball from the stripe. The only way he’s going to stop doing it is if the referees call it every time he violates the 10-second rule. Otherwise, it’s going to keep happening. It may not really affect the game that much, but rules are rules. Just like how the officials called the very rare 5-second back-to-the-basket violation on Turkoglu. And it’s not like it’s 10.5 seconds. He’s anywhere in the range of a 13- to 15-second routine. Just call it a few times and it will be over with.)

Meanwhile, the Nets couldn’t buy a decent shot at the rim, as the Magic defense suddenly stiffened in the third quarter. When they did hit a big shot, the Magic would come right back and nullify it; there was no opportunity for the Nets to gain any ground in the deficit.

What the Nets have to be concerned about is the awful play of the bench in this game. Save for Ben Uzoh’s three baskets that came in garbage time when the Magic didn’t care anymore, the reserves shot a combined 6-of-23 from the field. That’s about 26 percent. You aren’t going to win many games when you come off the bench with such a lack of firepower.

Moreover, while the Nets only had 14 turnovers, which isn’t terrible, they seemed to have forgotten how to pass. Every other pass was either a screwball that rolled off the intended recipient’s fingers or was just out of reach altogether. The Nets need to work on being more careful with the ball in order to prevent such crippling giveaways.

As for the defense, it would have served the Nets well if they had either committed to doubling Howard or abstained from doubling him completely. Sometimes Lopez or Derrick Favors would be on their own guarding him, and other times the help would come. When the Nets did double, their defensive rotations were slow and ineffective, as the Magic would usually get an open three straight off the kickout from Howard — there was no effort to force further ball movement to the point where the defense could situate itself for another stand.

Ian Eagle and Mike Fratello repeatedly mentioned the mindset that Avery Johnson is trying to cultivate of slicing the schedule into five-game snippets in order to get the team to focus on winning three out of every five games. You might say that, of the next five games, Orlando wasn’t really one the Nets needed to win, but it doesn’t get much easier. They’ll face Oklahoma City and Chicago twice with a must-win game against Minnesota thrown in. Hopefully the Nets can find a way to reach that three-win mark for this stretch, but if tonight was any indication, that’s not going to happen.