Let's assume for a moment that the Orlando Magic retain Dwight Howard beyond the March 15 trade deadline. Even with Howard in the fold, the team will have to make significant improvements defensively for it to have any shot at making a deep run in the playoffs.
Thursday night offered a painful case in point.
After three strong quarters, the Magic wilted against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Unable to stop All-Stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the Magic relinquished an 11-point lead in the fourth quarter and lost 105-102 at Amway Center.
"Our fourth-quarter defense was pathetic," coach Stan Van Gundy said after his Magic allowed the Thunder to shoot 67 percent in the final period. "I give them credit for what they did, and they're hard to stop. But it shouldn't be every possession."
Durant scored 18 of his game-high 38 points in the fourth. Westbrook played through a left-ankle sprain in the fourth to finish with 29 points and 10 assists. And the Thunder improved on their league-best record.
"That's one of the best, if not the best, offensive duo in the NBA," Magic power forward Ryan Anderson said. "They're tough. They're tough to guard. They're aggressive to the glass and they get foul calls."
The Magic still had a chance at the end after Daequan Cook missed a pair of free-throw attempts with 3.1 seconds remaining. But Jason Richardson's desperation 3-point try from 27 feet as time expired was far off the mark.
Howard scored a team-high 33 points on 14-of-20 shooting and collected nine rebounds.
It just wasn't enough for the Magic (23-14).
“Our defense coming down the stretch wasn’t where it needed to be, and on the offensive end, we didn’t execute,” Howard said. “But it was a good lesson for us to learn from.”
The game turned early in the fourth, while Howard and Richardson were on the bench to rest.
A dunk by Durant off a pass from James Harden on a fastbreak cut Orlando's lead to 83-76 with 9:24 remaining in regulation.
Van Gundy immediately called a timeout, and put Howard and Richardson back into the game.
But Oklahoma City (29-7) didn't let up.
Trailing 86-78, Westbrook sank a jumper off the glass, and on the Magic’s ensuing possession, Howard commitand a three-second violation. Durant made the Magic pay by knifing through the lane for a layup to cut the Magic’s lead to 86-82.
After Howard made one of two free throws, the Thunder went on an 11-2 run, ending with a pair of free throws by Durant to put Oklahoma City up 90-89 with 3:56 to go and a trey by Durant on the Thunder's next possession.
“I was going downhill fast after the first quarter, but my coaches and my teammates continued to talk to me and encourage me,” Durant said. “They told me they believed in me. It just clicked for me.”
Oklahoma City, which ran the pick-and-roll to perfection, never trailed again.
"There wasn't anything we did in the fourth quarter that they had any trouble with," Van Gundy said. "If we had one good defensive possession in the fourth quarter, I missed it."
The Thunder began the night with a .800 winning percentage, the best record in the NBA. The team boasts two young All-Stars, Durant and Westbrook, plus a superb young sixth man, Harden.
A key reason for the Thunder's success: They get to the foul line. A lot. Their team began the night averaging 27.4 free-throw attempts per game, the second-highest average in the NBA.
They didn't attempt their first foul shot on Thursday until 6:10 remained in the second quarter, but they still finished the game 21 of 27 from the line.
Durant, Westbrook and their coach, Scott Brooks, played central roles in the All-Star Game at Amway Center. Durant won the MVP award after he scored 36 points, and Westbrook added 21. Brooks was the Western Conference’s coach.
Before tipoff Thursday, Van Gundy and his assistant coaches set several priorities. They wanted their players to limit fastbreak points, limit layups and defend without fouling. They also wanted their players to push the pace.
It all worked.
Until the fourth quarter.
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