Lewis holds key to Magic's success
The Magic's offensive system mirrors that of the champion Rockets during '90s
Filling the spot of Robert Horry, Rashard Lewis is Orlando's perimeter weapon
Other topics: Paul Pierce is Boston's best antidote, Scott Skiles' impressive work
Rashard Lewis is the NBA's quintessential "stretch four," a power forward who earns his keep out on the perimeter instead of down in the paint. It is a curiously high-paying, high-pressure, yet low-profile role that Lewis occupies for the Orlando Magic, one that seems to fit his calm temperament.
Lewis understands that if he doesn't make his open three-pointers in the playoffs this season, the Magic aren't going to win a championship. Whatever you think of Vince Carter, the Magic offense still relies on the spacing achieved between Dwight Howard in the low block and their catch-and-shoot marksmen who "stretch" opposing defenses away from the star center by maneuvering for open looks outside the three-point arc.
The 6-foot-10 Lewis is a key linchpin in this strategy, which is patterned after the Houston championship teams of the early '90s. By surrounding Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon with a bevy of long-range shooters -- Sam Cassell, Vernon Maxwell, Mario Elie, Kenny Smith -- the Rockets discovered a new potency for the three-point weapon: Make opponents pick their poison between single-covering Olajuwon down low or leaving one of those shooters open. The matchup problems for Houston's opponents became even more acute because the Rockets had a power forward who was also deadly from the perimeter, forcing teams to exhaust their own power forward extending out to guard him, or going smaller or losing strength on the boards against Olajuwon.
The Rockets' stretch four during those championship years was Robert Horry. It is no coincidence that Horry began honing his legacy as "Big Shot Rob" at the same time he inhabited the role.
Now, the Magic are counting on Lewis, 30, to be their "Big Shot 'Shard." That was certainly the motivation for Orlando general manager Otis Smith, who flabbergasted the rest of the league by signing Lewis to a whopping six-year, $113 million contract in the summer of 2007.
"We just couldn't afford to lose him; we thought he was that important to our team," Smith said. "We approached the season with that in mind. We didn't want him on any other team. We thought his style of play was a perfect fit alongside Dwight and Jameer [Nelson] and Turk [the since-departed Hedo Turkoglu] at the time. And he has had a huge impact. [The signing was] definitely part of the turning point for our team."
The dividends really paid off in the Magic's stunning upset of Cleveland in last year's Eastern Conference finals. A Cavs team that had won 74 of 90 games in the regular season and playoffs leading into that series couldn't contend with the size and outside shooting prowess of Lewis and fellow forward Turkoglu. On more than one occasion, but especially to close out Game 1 and in the overtime win in Game 4, Lewis' clutch three-pointers were vital to the Magic's upset.
It could have been sweet redemption for Lewis, who, along with Smith, was widely mocked for the size of his contract. But asked about the level of satisfaction he felt from undercutting his critics with his crunch-time performance, his voice hardens with determination.
"There's no satisfaction because we haven't won an NBA championship yet," he said. "Last year was great but this is a new year and we still have a chip on our shoulder."
The new year brought changes, most significantly the departure of Turkoglu and the arrival of Carter, whose offensive style is more ball-centric and geared toward mid-range shooting. As a partial consequence, Lewis' numbers are down across the board -- minutes, rebounds, assists and shot attempts from the field, the three-point arc and the foul line.
"It's been a little bit of an adjustment," Lewis said. "Vince is a totally different player than Hedo -- sometimes he's better when he can be dominant. The chemistry may have been a little rocky at first, but we're all beginning to learn each other and now we're getting better. That's what matters. It doesn't matter if you are up and down early in the season.
"This year, even before training camp started, I looked at all the talent Otis brought in and I started saying that if we are going to win a championship, we have to sacrifice. Guys can't be upset about not getting shots some nights because there are going to be those nights for everybody."
According to Smith, this selfless attitude is another reason why Lewis is getting the big bucks.
"I contend that his personality is as important as his shooting for this team," Smith said. "Having Dwight and Vince and Jameer, it is hard for everyone to get all the hype, but he's been below the radar his entire career. He just goes about his business and at the end of the game you look up and he's got 18 [points] and six [rebounds] or 18 and nine. Dwight is our franchise player. Your best player has to understand he is your best player, and your role players have to understand they are your role players."
Lately, Lewis has endured a wretched slump that has him a long way from fulfilling his role. Last Saturday, he was torched by Washington's Andray Blatche, who outscored him 32-3 as Lewis picked up four fouls in less than 18 minutes. The next night, he went 1-for-7 from the field and, again, finished with three points in a home loss to Charlotte. In eight games this month, he is averaging just 10.5 points and shooting 39.7 percent while logging nearly 31 minutes.
"We've been winning, so it doesn't bother me," said Lewis, whose team is 7-1 in March.
But Lewis and the Magic know that that pattern -- his personal underachievement while the team succeeds -- isn't likely to hold up in the playoffs. Orlando isn't paying him $18 million this season (more than Howard or Carter are making) to disappear.
The best way for Orlando to exploit Kevin Garnett's troublesome wheels is to force him to race out and defend Lewis' three-pointers from the corner -- his primary shooting zone this season now that Magic opponents have worked hard to take away the high pick-and-roll between Lewis and Howard on the wing. The Cavs didn't go out at the trade deadline and acquire their own stretch four, Antawn Jamison, to match up with Carter. And, if the Magic get that far, Lewis' length and long-range accuracy are the best rebuttal to the Lakers' league-leading defense in three-point percentage.
Count on it: At some point during this postseason, the ball will be swung to Lewis out beyond the arc with the game on the line. Then we'll know a little bit more about the legacy of Big Shot 'Shard.
Around the NBA
After Boston's relentlessly inevitable loss to the Cavs on Sunday, people are trying to figure out how firmly to push the panic button on the Celtics. Given a realistic appraisal of the team's injuries, age and current performance, Boston's best hope for the postseason is a huge upgrade from Paul Pierce to near-vintage level. Garnett's chronic physical woes leave him bereft of another gear, Ray Allen has already raised his game since the All-Star break, and recent acquisitions Nate Robinson and Michael Finley are more Stephon Marbury than P.J. Brown when it comes to veteran rescues among the supporting cast.