MIAMI -- It took an embarrassment like this for someone employed by the Orlando Magic to admit the truth. Not surprisingly, it was Stan Van Gundy who saw the light and told it like it was.
"Against a good defensive team we have trouble a little bit," Van Gundy said outside the visiting locker room after the Heat delivered an October surprise in the form of a jarring 96-70 victory over Orlando. "We don't have -- and this isn't to put down anybody in our locker room -- but we don't have the great one-on-one players.
"I mean, we don't have [Dwyane] Wade and [LeBron] James and Paul Pierce and Kobe Bryant. And so for us to play well offensively, we have to get great ball movement. We really have to execute and move the ball. And yeah, we struggled to do that against a very good team in Boston and we struggled to do that again tonight."
|The Magic need to find a great shot creator to pair with Dwight Howard. (Getty Images)|
And worse, they were a team that had somehow forgotten all about that.
"Shell-shocked" was how Howard described it.
"The atmosphere kind of got some guys flustered," Howard said. "I got on guys after the game. I told them, 'If we want to be a championship team, this was not a championship effort.'"
The reality hit Howard and Van Gundy like Vince Carter going down like a ton of bricks. (More on him later.) The NBA has changed dramatically since the Magic got escorted out of the playoffs by the Celtics with barely a spasm of resistance. In this NBA, the championship contenders have multiple stars -- the Big Four in Boston; Kobe, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and appropriate role players in L.A.; and of course, the Supertwins and Chris Bosh in Miami.
The Magic came out last night with Howard. That was it. Without Howard (8-for-15 for 19 points, all in the first half) and Ryan Anderson's five garbage-time baskets, Orlando was 8-for-46.
"Again, here we are against a very good defensive team and we've just got to be a lot better at being able to move the ball and make passes," Van Gundy said. "And we weren't able to do that."
The Magic signed Quentin Richardson and Chris Duhon this past summer. Some 200 miles to the south, Van Gundy's former boss, Pat Riley, moved heaven and Earth and LeBron. With Bryant still well-supported and in his prime, and with the Celtics obviously still being the Celtics, this is not a good time to be the same old Magic.
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"Passing's a major problem with our team, it really is," Van Gundy said. " ... Look, their defense was very good. But I think when the defense is good, that's when our passing problems become evident."
Then Van Gundy used the word "horrendous" to describe it. He wasn't calling out anyone in particular, but when the passing is horrendous and your team has five assists, the first place you look after the game is in the point guard's locker. That is where the assembled media not enjoying another LeBron-Wade joint press conference found Jameer Nelson, who is Exhibit A for what will keep Howard and the Magic from their ultimate goal.
"We didn't execute anything," said Nelson, the point guard who was supposed to execute it. "The one thing we had going was Dwight scoring down low. None of our pick-and-roll game worked. Nothing worked other than going to Dwight. ... We have such great 3-point shooters and you have to deliver the ball on time and on target. We didn't do that at all, myself included. Nobody's exempt from this."
And he's right; it wasn't all Nelson's fault. Those great 3-point shooters were 4 for 24 Friday night -- 0 for 9 in the third quarter, when Orlando was 2 for 20 from the field as a six-point deficit turned into 24. The Magic had seven field goals in the second half, when Howard was rendered ineffective by foul trouble and by Miami's three 3-pointers in rapid succession -- one by James and two by Wade -- that blew the game open at the start of the third.
That display, the first startling signs of LeBron and Wade starting to click, didn't impress Howard.
"Because they made some wide-open threes?" Howard said. "Wide-open threes?"
Which brings us to Carter, who is supposed to be Orlando's go-to guy when Howard isn't. Carter was 1 for 5 for four points in 13 minutes, coming back only briefly after getting his shot blocked and crumpling to the court late in the second quarter. Van Gundy described the incident by saying Carter "sort of got hit."
"It felt like the entire team landed on the back of my head," said Carter, adding that the pain went "down my neck, hit my chest and went right to my lower back."
And that's Exhibit B. The Magic have lived and died by the 3-point shot in their runs to the NBA Finals and conference finals in the past two years. They've gotten by with shaky point-guard play and with Howard not always being as assertive as he should be -- and not having the post moves his critics have yearned for him to find.
Now, Howard has both. He said during the summer it was going to be no more Mr. Nice Guy, and he was right; Howard came out with a vengeance Friday night, and also with an assortment of footwork and Tim Duncan-like bank shots no one had seen before. And it all goes back to Van Gundy's comment about not having a great shot-creator to pair with him. All of this work Howard has put in -- on his moves and on his attitude -- will be wasted if the Magic don't find someone like that.
It is no wonder that Howard quietly put together a wish list of players he wanted Orlando to acquire during the summer. At the top of it was Chris Paul, who is staying in New Orleans for now, and Carlos Boozer, who went to Chicago. Howard will say all the right things and lash out in a losing locker room for as long as it takes. But on this night, the first important test for Orlando since the debacle against the Celtics, he was all alone.
"This was a wakeup call for us," Carter said.
One that finally got the truth out in the open.