Howard injury leaves defensive void for Magic

Up until late March of this year, Dwight Howard seemed almost indestructible. The No. 1 pick in the 2004 NBA Draft played in 351 consecutive games for the Orlando Magic (five-plus seasons) before missing his first game. He had missed only seven regular-season games in his first seven-plus years in the league until this season. The Superman moniker seemed appropriate.

Now, for first time in Howard’s basketball career, he has suffered a significant injury.

Reports surfaced Thursday night that Howard will undergo back surgery, effectively ending any hopes the Magic had of getting him back for a playoff run. And the Magic, for the first time in more than seven seasons, are finding out what life is like on the basketball court without the six-time All-Star.

Howard already has missed eight games since first suffering from back spasms after a rough-and-tumble game against the Dallas Mavericks on March 30th. The team has fought hard in those eight games and, at times, has been a bit of a throwback to the heart and hustle Magic team of 1999-2000. But overall, the results have been predictable.

The Magic without Dwight Howard can still score points. They are averaging 99 points per game in his absence, more than five more than they were scoring with him.

They still make and take a lot of 3-pointers (right about their season averages of 10 for 27 per game).

And with every player doing what he can to pick up the slack for the league’s leading rebounder, the Magic, without Howard, are outrebounding their opponents by an average of 41.2-38.7 per game, a bigger margin than before Dwight’s injury.

Where the Magic are hurting most is at the defensive end of the floor, which should come as no great surprise because Howard is the NBA’s three-time defending defensive player of the year. The numbers tell the story.

Without Howard, the Magic are giving up an average of almost 98 points per game, more than five more than with him. Alarmingly, teams are shooting 49.3 percent from the field against the Magic, and 36.8 percent from beyond the arc (up from 43.8 percent and 34.6 percent). And without Howard patrolling the defensive area around the basket, teams no longer fear driving the ball to the rim against Orlando. The Magic are surrendering an average of more than 40 points per game in the paint without Howard, about four more than without him.

Coach Stan Van Gundy has made the point, and it is a valid one, that in seven of the eight games Howard has missed, the Magic also have been without the services of Hedo Turkoglu. That’s two key starters out of the lineup. While Turkoglu is certainly a valuable asset on the offensive end (the Magic sorely miss his playmaking ability), he never has been known as a wing stopper on the defensive end of the floor.

The bottom line result for the Magic: In the eight games Dwight Howard has missed since March 30, Orlando has a record of 3-5. They are still a playoff team, but the pertinent question is: “Now that Howard is unable to return to the court for the playoffs, can the Magic win a post-season series without him?”

The answer is yes, but it will not be easy.

The Magic can score the basketball. They can play a lot of pick-and-roll offense on the perimeter with talented offensive players such as Ryan Anderson, J.J. Redick and Jameer Nelson. Glen Davis can create matchup problems on offense at the center position. The team has shown that it can play with grit and heart.

But on the defensive end, that will get you only so far. Without Howard, the Magic must find a way to slow down opposing offenses. Players will have to be more committed to stopping the advancement of the ball. They will have to take their defensive efforts to a new level.

With Howard, the Magic were what they had been for the past seven-plus seasons, one of the most dangerous teams in the NBA.

Without Dwight Howard in the playoffs, the Magic are an underdog team with perhaps a little more than a puncher’s chance.