Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Magic Come to Town in Potential 1st Round Preview

Orlando Magic at Washington Wizards
Wednesday, March 5 - 7pm
Verizon Center
TV: Comcast Sports Net

Asked about his team's matchup with Southeast division leading Orlando tonight, Wizards coach Eddie Jordan had this to say: "I just hope we have kryptonite somewhere in our lineup because Superman is pretty good."

Looks like Kenny Smith and the 18,000 in attendance for the All-Star Weekend Slam Dunk contest weren't the only people blown away by Dwight Howard's aerial showcase.

Tonight the Wizards play host to Clark Kent and his Magic, hoping to continue their recent stretch of solid play against the NBA's elite. Both teams have won two straight and Orlando has won seven-of-nine including a statement game of its own. The Magic came out on the winning end of a 103-85 blowout in Detroit on February 19.

The likelihood of the Wizards catching Orlando in the race for the division title is about as good as DeShawn Stevenson's of overtaking Drew Gooden in the Beard Challenge (More on this later). But a win tonight would be huge for Washington - every win is big for a team playing without two of it's top three scorers, but this would be really big - before a one-game road trip to Toronto followed by a five-game home-stand against beatable teams.

Orlando currently sits third in the Eastern Conference playoff race, meaning if the regular season ended today, they would match up with their division foes in the first round. Tonight could be a very intriguing preview to that potential series.


  • Gilbert Arenas was back on the practice floor yesterday, running through five-on-five drills with the team and beating out slow as molasses Darius Songaila in sprints after their team lost. Gil wasn't expected to speak with the media but per the request/forceful demand of PR guy Zack Bolno, he briefly addressed the 30+ member contingent, answering 21 questions by Dan Steinberg's count and reassured everyone that even through his rehabilitation, Hibachi hasn't let his cocky young tenant defeat the landlord. "C'mon. It IS Nick, you know. I know [I'm injured], but it's still Nick."
  • If anyone on the Wizards possesses the kryptonite Jordan is seeking, it might be Songaila. Not because he has the bulk or the quickness to contain Howard, but because the Lithuanian kind of looks like Michael Rosenbaum, Lex Luthor in that show about Clark Kent's youth, Smallville. Yeah? Maybe? OK, it could be a stretch.
  • Speaking of Songaila, the elder Eastern European on the Wizards' roster painted his likeness on a Wizard-themed plane that the team decorated yesterday after practice. Not too shabby, but it looks a little too much like Oleksiy Pecherov's namesake.

The Last Time
The Wizards had a 67-64 lead heading into the fourth quarter of their first meeting with the Magic on November 3 in D.C. and then All-Star snub Hedo Turkoglu took over. The Turkish sharpshooter scored 13 of his game-high 25 in the final frame, leading Orlando to a 94-82 victory and handing the Wiz their third straight loss to open the season.

Gilbert Arenas tweaked his knee on the way to a very un-Hibachi-like 10 points. Washington - which shot just 34.8 percent - got 23 points from Caron Butler and 20 from Antawn Jamison but it wasn't enough to match an 18-point effort from Orlando's massive free agent pick-up, Rashard Lewis, and a typical 17 and 15 performance from Howard. Arenas would suit up for five more contests before going back under the knife.

Key Match Up

Antawn Jamison v. Rashard Lewis - With their size and outside shooting ability, the Magic are a matchup nightmare up and down their starting lineup. At 6-foot-10, 230, Lewis can post you up or step out and hit the mid-range (or long-range) jumper. He's averaging 18.4 points, 5.4 boards and 2.4 assists per game and although his scoring is down from his days in Seattle, the 10-year vet has befitted tremendously from the presence of Howard and Turkoglu. With the big guy underneath and the shooter on the perimeter to spread the defense, Lewis can roam freely opposite Howard on the block or on the outside.

Jamison, who played Lewis fairly even in the first meeting (he finished with 20 and five but shot just 6-for-21 from the floor), is far from Washington's most capable defender, but he should be able to assert himself on the boards. The All-Star reserve leads the team in rebounding with 10.4 per game. AJ needs to slow Lewis on the defensive end and find the openings only he can to get off those trademark flip shots, runners and layups because the Wiz certainly won't be able to contain Howard at the other post position (sorry Brendan).

I didn't expect the Wizards to beat the Hornets once, let alone twice - let's be honest, who outside of that locker room did? - just like I didn't expect them to beat Dallas or Boston twice. I've been wrong before and I'll be wrong again. But I don't see them winning this one tonight. They're on a mini-roll and should be riding the energy of Agent Zero's return to practice yesterday into tonight's contest, but the Magic are also rolling and they've got a lot of weapons.

If there's one area where the Wiz have an advantage - and this might surprise you based on their injury situation - it's the bench. Washington's reserves have come on strong of late as Andray Blatche has readjusted nicely to his sixth-man role, averaging 14 points and 6.5 boards in his last two games since being replaced in the starting lineup by Songaila. Roger Mason is a consistent contributor in the back-court and the three rookies appear to finally be finding their roles on the team. The Magic have decent options in Keith Bogans and Carlos Arroyo, but no real scorers to give their starters a big boost. Fortunately for them, they haven't really needed much more than a few minutes for the big guys to get a breather here and there.

As is always the case, if the Wizards get an edge on the boards, get to the free throw line, take care of the ball and knock down timely outside shots, they can pick up a W. They can certainly run with the Magic, who average 104.3 points per game (6th most in the league). Maybe the Wiz will continue drop the games they should win and win the wons they're not supposed to. Either way, they're looking to get back to .500 tonight and with the way they've been playing of late, a win wouldn't be a shock.

All photos AP/Getty by way of Yahoo!

-- The Tar Heel

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