Fast Breaks: Thunder topple Magic as Howard struggles to find rhythm
Dwight Howard scored just 11 points in the Magic's loss and struggled in the paint
Kevin Durant poured in 30 points and could be on the brink of an MVP campaign
The Thunder's bench made a big difference on Sunday and could do so all season
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After a strong start in Oklahoma City, Dwight Howard and the Magic found it difficult to score while Kevin Durant led the Thunder to a 97-89 win that wasn't that close. By the end of Christmas Day's fourth game, the Thunder looked like title contenders and the Magic looked like a team searching for direction. Let's break it down.
The problem with making a trade demand public, Dwight Howard, is that when you shoot 4-of-12 and score only 11 points, no one cares that you also pulled down 15 rebounds and blocked two shots while facing one of the toughest interior defenses in the league. Howard has struggled against Kendrick Perkins in the past in their Celtics-Magic battles and that was the case once again Sunday as Howard rarely looked comfortable working in the paint. But that trade demand will also open Howard up to questions about his commitment. For instance, is a performance that sees Ryan Anderson and Jameer Nelson shoot more than Howard a winning plan? And when Kevin Durant drew two quick fouls on Howard in the third quarter without so much as hitting the floor, was Howard trying to avoid a foul or trying to avoid playing hard? Howard seemed engaged at the game's start and he has never been a scowling intimidator. Add in the hostile circumstances (road game, great team) and we'll chalk up Opening Night to a tough matchup. But the microscope is out and the intensity won't subside anytime soon.
Kevin Durant picked up right where he left off after leading the league in scoring last season. The quick release, the range to shoot from anywhere on the floor, the willingness to slice inside; all of it was in use as he scored 30 points and kept the Thunder's foot to the pedal in the second half despite playing with a big lead. With the Lakers in transition this season, the Mavericks trying to incorporate some new pieces and the Spurs likely to treasure rest more than dominant play, the Thunder have a pretty clear path to the West's No. 1 seed. Assuming Durant stays healthy and cleans up a disappointing 6-of-11 Opening Night performance at the line, he's likely to end the season the unquestioned leader of a team with one of the best records in the NBA. Those are the types of credentials that usually win an MVP.
Better bench play is often the key ingredient to homecourt advantage, and the Thunder enjoyed a hearty helping in outscoring the Magic reserves 39-25. No matter the venue, though, Oklahoma City should enjoy a second-unit edge most nights. James Harden would start for most teams, and likely would in OKC if it didn't have enough punch in the starting lineup to afford bumping Harden. Eric Maynor offers some creativity at point and Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed have the size to defend a center as skilled as Howard while also doing the dirty work expected from all bench bigs. With fatigue sure to be a bigger factor more than usual this season, the Thunder reserves are a big reason why this club may be the class of the West. It also may be one of the many reasons the Magic take a step back, unless Stan Van Gundy can focus Glen Davis' emotions and tease some semblance of offense out of Chris Duhon. Don't hold your breath.
If the Magic want to avoid a horrific start, they have to try to find some easier baskets than they did Sunday. With a hint of training camp and even less of a preseason, there's no way the Magic had the time to establish a rhythm shooting. Orlando has to recognize that quicker than they did against the Thunder. When a hot start in the first quarter fizzled, Orlando kept firing from outside. In the second quarter, by my rough estimate, Orlando took 11 of its 21 shots from 16 feet or further, hitting just five. Over those same 12 minutes, the Magic hit 3-of-5 shots in the paint. By the time the half was finished, the Magic were down 14 and facing a tough comeback on the road against a good team. There may not be a lot of help for Howard inside, but Orlando has to try because it might have a lot of nights when it struggles from outside this season.