ORLANDO, Fla. -- There’s a chance Stan Van Gundy just coached his last game in the Amway Center as coach of the Orlando Magic.
But while he’s here, he’s coaching his tail off for the overmatched, undersized Magic -- and his team nearly tied its series with the Indiana Pacers on Saturday thanks to a pivotal lineup adjustment and inspired play from a team with a built-in excuse to quit.
The Magic lost 101-99 in overtime after erasing a 19-point fourth-quarter deficit against a Pacers team they're inferior to in almost every area, especially center, where Dwight Howard's absence is felt on every Roy Hibbert hook shot, on every contested 3-pointer not opened up by Howard's post presence.
That’s why the Magic, if put in the situation, will pick Howard over Van Gundy, the most successful coach in franchise history. Howard’s obviously a once-in-a-generation talent it takes pingpong balls to acquire, and he plays a bigger role in the outcome of a playoff series than any coach.
But Van Gundy is proving his worth to the Magic -- and to the rest of the league -- by holding together a once-broken locker room and squeezing every ounce of talent from a roster whose leading scorer was the fifth-best player on the Boston Celtics last season.
It would’ve been easy for the Magic to lay down Saturday when David West sunk a jumper to put the Pacers up 80-63 with a little more than eight minutes left in the game.
The building was dead. Orlando’s players slumped back down the court in frustration.
Van Gundy didn’t let up.
On the next dead ball, Van Gundy made an adjustment that led to a 14-0 run and almost prompted a monumental comeback victory.
Van Gundy took out Ryan Anderson -- who was honored before the game as the league’s most-improved player -- and moved Hedo Turkoglu to power forward, a lineup the Magic used for only 13 total minutes in the first three games.
The Pacers scrambled.
“That was a lineup we hadn’t seen a whole lot of, and it took us a while to adjust to it,” Indiana coach Frank Vogel said. “We tried going small at first and I think they scored about four straight layups on us. So we went back to our starting lineup and that challenged them to go our style of play.”
Danny Granger said the Magic “picked up their intensity and got out on the break more” in the smaller lineup, which the Magic stuck with for the rest of regulation.
The Magic cut the lead to single digits, and then another 8-0 run tied the game at 89-89 in the final minute before Jameer Nelson missed a buzzer-beating jumper that would’ve won the game.
The Magic stuck with the lineup until the middle of overtime, when West really began to wear down Turkoglu. Anderson reentered the game and then, down 101-99, the Magic had another chance to extend the game on Glen Davis’ fadeaway.
“Nothing’s good that doesn’t’ work,” Van Gundy said when asked about his team’s two time-expiring shot opportunities. “I take account. I’m the one who draws up the plays, so if they don’t work, it’s on me.”
Does Howard make that shot? Probably not.
But the Magic are almost certainly not down 3-1 heading back to Indiana with Howard in uniform.
The Magic are built on Howard. Everything they do, from their offensive playbook to their defensive philosophy, is predicated on the impact of the world’s best big man. Without Howard, they’re a lost, starless team with no identity.
“He would’ve made a tremendous difference,” Vogel says. “I don’t know how else to put it.”
But everything’s being held together by Van Gundy and a cohesive group of guys who’ve all had their season taken hostage by Howard’s ongoing trade drama.
Teams are always going to side with the superstar.
In this case, they’re likely going to lose a superstar coach because of it.