If the Magic are going to get back to the Finals, it's not going to be because of Jameer Nelson, Rashard Lewis, or even Vince Carter. The Magic need to rely on Dwight Howard, and nearly 60 games into the season, this year's Magic team appears reluctant to accept this very blatant truth.
For proof, just look at what happened against the Hornets.
The Magic opened up an 18-point lead against the Hornets on Friday night, placing themselves on the gargantuan shoulders of Dwight Howard for most of the first half, as David West single-handedly kept the Hornets in the game.
In the second half, New Orleans coach Jeff Bower subbed out Emeka Okafor, the former UConn center who was selected immediately following Howard in the 2004 NBA draft, for Aaron Gray, a third-year, third-string center who had been scraping for minutes in Chicago since entering the league.
After slamming home seven dunks and throwing down 21 points on Okafor in slightly over a half, Gray held Howard to five points and one dunk for the rest of the game, as New Orleans whittled Orlando's once-massive lead to nothingness.
The Magic had an eight-point lead going into the fourth quarter, but the Hornets ended up winning by seven.
The Associated Press write-up of the game tells the whole story:
Howard said he did not have a tougher time getting inside position on Gray than on Okafor. Instead, he said his team became too impatient in general, and was too quick to shoot from outside.
"Whatever's working, we've got to keep going to and not shy away from," Howard said.
Howard knows it. Stan Van Gundy definitely knows it.
Last year during the playoffs, Howard and SVG came to blows over his touches down low after a Game 5 loss to Boston put them on the precipice of playoff elimination. The Magic emphasized pounding the ball to Dwight the next two games, and the Magic ended up making a trip to the NBA Finals.
This season, SVG has been practically pleading with his team all season to keep feeding the big man down low. After virtually every loss, SVG's got his responses down to a science: "We let up defensively, and we didn't get Dwight enough touches."
The statistics back up the sentiment that Dwight doesn't shoot enough: despite being the team's scoring leader, Vince Carter (14.2), Rashard Lewis (11.9), and Jameer Nelson (10.6) all jack up more shots per game than his average of 10.2.
Most alarmingly, this tendency to forget about D-Howard seems to recur towards the end of games, especially when they're trying to stage a comeback.
Howard's averaging 60.7 percent shooting from the floor this season. Even though his offensive game is not yet a thing of beauty (it's improving, but it's not quite there), his unique combination of size and strength give him the rare ability to consistently generate easy looks at the basket.
Yet from the start of the fourth quarter against the Hornets, when the Magic were up 80-72, Dwight had one missed jumper to start the quarter, turned the ball over once, and the Magic started a three-point parade.
Unlike last year, when Nelson, Hedo Turkoglu, Rafer Alston, and Lewis rained three's on teams all-day, every day, this Magic squad doesn't quite have the same affinity for nailing back-breaking threes.
Michael Pietrus jacked up a 25-footer and missed. Ryan Anderson did the same the next trip down the court. J.J. Redick knocked down a three, leaving the Magic ahead two points at 83-81. Jameer Nelson jacks a three and misses.
Dwight finally asserts himself inside—he misses a five-foot hook shot, but slams home a dunk to give the Magic an 86-85 lead with 4:26 left.
And then...Vince Carter bricked two threes, Nelson missed two more, and Redick joined in on the brick party, as the Hornets turned a one-point deficit into a seven-point lead with one minute left.
Game. Set. Match. And Howard didn't take one shot in the most critical four minutes of the game.
Now, when dissecting this year's Magic, the VC-for-Turkoglu swap is inherently discussed because of VC's horrible January, and the Magic's scary three-point effectiveness last season seems to be a thing of the past.
But the biggest problem for the Magic is that when the backcourt can't knock down a three-pointer, they must go down low to the most dominant big man in the NBA.
If the Magic have any aspirations of a return trip to the NBA Finals, they must remember this fundamental principle of their offense. Otherwise, don't be surprised to see Vince Carter and Rashard Lewis shooting the Magic right out of the playoffs this season.