PHILADELPHIA — Dwight Howard sat stone-faced near the end of the Orlando Magic bench as the final minutes ticked down inside the Wells Fargo Centeron Monday night. The Magic were about to lose their fourth consecutive game, and Howard must have hated what he was witnessing.
The final score — Philadelphia 74, Orlando 69 — does not show just how poorly the Magic offense played. Orlando made only three baskets in the entire third quarter and had scored only 51 points with three minutes remaining in regulation.
“Look, if a team doesn’t play hard, that’s one thing, but I thought our guys competed hard tonight,” coach Stan Van Gundy said. “And it’s my responsibility to find a way to create good shots for us, and I’m not running from that responsibility.”
Which begs a question: How long will it take for this freefall to be corrected?
That depends on what you believe is the root cause of the problem.
Van Gundy and his players cite a grueling schedule in which they played six games over the last eight days and 10 games over the last 15 days. And that demanding stretch has limited practice time, making it impossible to improve the areas that desperately need improvement.
They also note that starting point guard Jameer Nelson has missed the last two games because of concussion-like symptoms and that Jason Richardson sat out on Monday because of weakness in his left knee.
But what if Dwight Howard’s uncertain future and his criticism of teammates after recent losses are taking a toll?
Howard, who scored a team-high 17 points and collected 11 rebounds, insists that his situation — and his recent comments about his teammates’ play — have not hurt the Magic.
“When you step on the court, you have to play,” Howard said. “It doesn’t matter what anybody says. This is basketball. We love this game. We’re blessed. We’re doing something that we love. So that should not affect you when you get on the floor. It shouldn’t.
“These guys know how I feel about each and every one of them. These are my brothers regardless of what happens, and I’m going to give them 100 percent every night because I owe it to them. I owe to the city. I owe it to the team. That’s my job. That’s what I do. And I owe it to myself because I want to win, and I love this game.”
On Monday, Howard, like most of his teammates, was inefficient. He went 6-for-17 from the field and 5-for-13 from the foul line.
He didn’t receive much help — at least not until it was too late.
J.J. Redick went 3-for-13.
Hedo Turkoglu was 1-for-9, and afterward, Van Gundy said Turkoglu “is pretty tired right now” and is almost out of gas.
With Turkoglu struggling, and Nelson out, the Magic have lost two key figures in their pick-and-roll game.
“We got a break,” Sixers coach Doug Collins said. “It was their sixth game in eight nights. They’re beat up. I think Jameer Nelson on that team is the guts of that team, and they obviously missed him.”
But Nelson had floundered for much of the season, and the Magic had survived.
Now, it appears that the team has too much to overcome, at least temporarily.
Orlando’s chances against Philly eroded in the third quarter.
The Magic made only three of their 17 shot attempts and went from the 10:29 mark to the 4:31 mark without making a basket.
Howard scored all three of those baskets.
What went wrong?
“Effort on both ends of the court,” said power forward Ryan Anderson, who scored 14 points and grabbed a career-high 20 rebounds.
“I think we have all the tools. We can play well. We know how to play. I just think we’re coming out and our effort just isn’t really there the way we know it can be.”
Orlando now has failed to score at least 20 points in 11 of its last 14 quarters, a streak that dates back to the second half of last Thursday’s heartbreaking defeat to the Boston Celtics.
If there was a saving grace for Orlando (12-9) on Monday it was that Philadelphia (15-6) has one of the best defenses in the NBA.
The Sixers entered the day limiting opponents to 87.0 points per game, the lowest average in the league, and just 41.8 percent shooting, the third-lowest percentage in the league.
“We’re going to be all right,” Howard said.
“Listen, listen: Every team, every player, every person, they go through things. We’re going through some right now. So we’re not going to hang our head. We’re not going to fight with each other. We’re going to stay together. And we’re going to weather the storm. That’s it.”
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