Game Notes: Magic at Clippers
Superman turns 24.
by Graham Flashner
Superman is in a good mood. Why shouldn’t he be? It’s his 24th birthday, he’s just had three days to frolic in L.A. (the Magic have been here since Sunday), and the 16-4 Magic are on a serious roll, with seven-straight wins on the road, and two victories away from the best start in franchise history.
“No questions tonight on my birthday,” Dwight Howard announces with a playful smile in the locker room. No serious questions, anyway; Howard’s got his standup comedian hat on, and questions of substance are left for the post-game. A certain well-traveled foreign TV reporter, known for his video diaries and inane questions like, “What’s it like playing with a Polish teammate?” (referring to Marcin Gortat), points his camera at Howard and fires away.
“What do you want for your birthday?” Howard is asked. “A championship,” he responds, as if it’s the most obvious answer in the world.
Howard is shirtless and sculpted, and I have no shame in saying I would gladly trade three years of my life to have his abs. Well, maybe three months. Either way, if there’s a better basketball body out there, I’ve yet to see it. Unless it’s Ron Artest’s.
Howard fields such inquiries as the toughest guy for him to guard (“JJ Redick,” he says with a straight face), does a mean impression of Stan Van Gundy as a sumo wrestler, and confides that he gets the same Christmas gift from his Grandma every year – a pair of thermals.
Matt Barnes, watching the reporter visit his shtick on Gortat, can’t take any more. “How does he even get a press pass?” Barnes mutters aloud. “I hate that guy.”
Someone delivers a bag of Mickey D’s to Rashard Lewis, who retreats to the trainer’s room to wolf down a burger and fries. If you want to know what ballers are fueling up with before they hit the court, here it is. Mickael Pietrus is also eating a burger at his locker. I decide to hit him up with the questions Superman won’t answer, questions like: What did last year’s Finals experience teach this year’s team?
“We have to have the same mindset as the Lakers did two years ago, after they lost to Boston and came back stronger the year after,” says Pietrus. “That’s what we’re trying to be.”
I mention how last year’s Magic team may have caught people by surprise. Pietrus interrupts: “Caught you guys by surprise, but not us. We worked hard to have a great season.”
Inside the Clippers locker room, a tape of the Magic-Knicks game is playing on TV. This is a scene played out repeatedly in every locker room I’ve been to: a recent game featuring the night’s opponent plays on a TV screen, but no one ever seems to be watching. I approach Ricky Davis.
Davis assured me players watch. Or at least — he does. “It’s a chance to see what the other team does,” he says. “You get to see some of the younger players in the League you don’t normally get to see. How they defense pick-and-rolls, offensive patterns… watching their D helps me because I’m a scorer.”
I feel much better now. Unfortunately, Davis is the only guy watching, and he winds up playing zero minutes. The guy who really should be watching is Chris Kaman, but he’s not here, and I don’t blame him. Howard usually eats him for breakfast. Watching a few game highlights isn’t likely going to change that.
Quote inscribed on the Clippers’ hallway wall: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle.
I’m not sure Aristotle had the Clippers in mind when he said this.
A word about the press room: in case you didn’t think the depressed economy hasn’t left its mark everywhere, consider this: there once was a carvery table to supplement the buffet, a big guy with a white chef’s hat slicing roast beef, turkey, and what-have-you for the grateful press hordes. This year, where there was once a carver, there is now condiments and a tureen of soup. Just felt the need to point that out.
You would think Baron Davis played in Orlando, he’s hugging so many guys in blue before tipoff.
First three times Magic guard Jason Williams touches the ball, he’s booed. Fans apparently haven’t forgiven Williams for having the good sense to “retire” in the summer of ’08 rather than play for the Clippers.
There is no lonelier man on the court tonight than Clippers center Chris Kaman. Howard attacks him from the opening tip, scoring with a variety of baseline spins, Chocolate Thunder jams, and graceful floaters. When Kaman tries to respond on the other end, Howard swats away two of his shots like King Kong batting away airplanes.
If this looks depressingly familiar, it should: a year ago on this very night, the night Dwight Howard turned 23, the Magic beat the Clippers in L.A., and Howard torched Kaman for 23 and 22. Daily Double is on his way to 25 and 11 tonight. (He killed me,” Kaman admits later).
5:49 into the quarter, Kaman mercifully heads to the bench, replaced by DeAndre Jordan.
Jordan does a good job keeping Howard away from the basket, but now the Magic begin to spread the floor. With the Clippers looking inside, Rashard Lewis and Jason Williams rain down three-pointers.
As overmatched as the Clippers look, they’re only down 34-24 after one, because Baron has come to play tonight, and the dependable Eric Gordon is creating match-up problems for Williams.
Kaman answers the bell, starting off with a block on Brian Anderson, then he steps in front of Howard and picks off a low-post pass, leading to a Mardy Collins J. The Clippers start doubling Howard, and when the Magic shooting cools, the Clippers are able to hang around.
Still, the Magic have so many weapons – and their best point guard, Jameer Nelson, is out with a knee injury. This is exactly the kind of game the Clippers needed injured rookie Blake Griffin for; there’s just too many guys in the Magic lineup that can score quickly, and I haven’t even mentioned Vince Carter, who’s having a quiet night,
Not sure why Marcus Camby insists on taking those flat-footed 25-footers. They’re not pretty, and the result isn’t either.
Kaman forcing too many jumpers over defenders with hands in his face. The Magic are spreading the ball, three and four guys often touching it with Phoenix Suns-type efficiency, whereas the Clippers often take too long to develop their plays, and are called for three-second violations or fouls. One good reason why it’s 49-39, Magic.
A beautiful cross-court pass from Butler finds Baron for the Clippers’ biggest basket of the half, a three-point play that cuts the lead to six by the half.
A three by Al Thornton brings the Clippers to 63-58 and the crowd comes alive — first chants of “De-fense” are heard, and speaking of, they’ve held Superman to 2 points since his monster 1st quarter.
Thornton has been on a tear of late. After a slow start, the sophomore forward has averaged 17.9 over the last 12 games and is shooting 52 percent from the field, to reclaim his starting job from Rasual Butler. Pre-game, Mike Dunleavy said that in the first eight games, Big Al hadn’t been “playing above the rim”; due to loss of weight and reduced energy. All that’s over now, and Thornton is back to full-strength.
The irrepressible Howard looks frustrated for first time after he plays inside-outside with Jason Williams and Williams tanks a wide-open three. But even after he clanks two free throws, he runs down court with a big smile. Fans are showering him with birthday wishes.
With 6:11 to go, Gordon ties the game with a three. Minutes later, they go ahead for the first time all night.
DeAndre Jordan comes flying down the lane to make a great block that leaves him sprawled prone on the court, Only problem is, it’s called a goaltend. Jordan leaps to his feet like a man accused of a crime he didn’t commit. 70-69 Magic.
With time running out, a three-point dagger by Pietrus beats the shot clock and gives Orlando a 4-point lead and momentum heading into the 4th. The Clippers don’t realize it yet, but their chance at snatching the game has gone.
Pass of the night: Sebastian Telfair, trapped in a corner, looking for an open man — hits a surprised Stan Van Gundy right in the letters.
A 14-2 Magic run, bridging the late third and early fourth quarters seals this one, the Magic’s superior athleticism asserting itself over the Clips’ gritty effort.
With 2:35 to go, a familiar ritual of late begins: chants of “Fire Dunleavy” and “We want Lucas” – a not-so-subtle nod to assistant coach John Lucas.
The Magic’s three-day jaunt in L.A. is over, as they prepare to board a late-night flight to Utah.
“We’ve found a way to win, whether they’re blowouts or close games,” says Vince Carter. “In second halves, we’ve done a good job buckling down and sticking to the game plan.”
“It’s all about how we execute at the end of games,” Carter adds.
As to be expected, Howard’s in a rollicking mood after his birthday win. He’s effusive in his praise for Van Gundy as a tough-but-fair motivator. “We want to push to be better players, and if he doesn’t push us, who will?” he says. I ask Howard if the relationship has turned a corner since the public difference of opinion he had with his coach during last year’s playoffs against the Celtics, but Howard quickly corrects me:
“There was no difference. I was frustrated. I made a comment – it was blown out of proportion – we talked about it.”
“I’m not satisfied, but I think we’re getting better,” Howard continues. “That’s what we want, to stay humble and not get complacent with who we are.”
Asked if he had any strange feelings about returning to Staples for the first time since last June, Howard flashes a 24-carat smile. “L.A.’s a fun place to play,” he says with a mischievous grin. “Except when you play the Lakers.”