Keyed by Jameer Nelson, the Orlando Magic rallied in the second half to defeat the Los Angeles Lakers, 106-103, to win their fourth straight game. Nelson scored 15 of his team-high 27 points in the third period to turn a 9-point halftime deficit into a 1-point lead heading into the final frame. Los Angeles' Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher each scored season-highs with 41 and 27 points, respectively, but it wasn't enough to beat a balanced Orlando attack. The Lakers dropped two straight games for the first time this season.
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The difference for Orlando, as it has been all year, was effort. The Magic came out flat in the first half, allowing the Lakers to get more than their share of loose balls and rebounds. They also made lazy passes, like the one Hedo Turkoglu threw directly to Lakers forward Vladimir Radmanovic, who streaked end-to-end for a dunk. In the second half, it was a much different story. Coach Stan Van Gundy noted after the game that the Magic held the Lakers, the league's highest-scoring team this season, to 45 points on 36% shooting in the final two frames. Kobe Bryant, who sizzled with 25 first-half points, made just 1 of his 7 shots in the 4th period. Credit Keith Bogans for that poor shooting. The Magic's starting shooting guard played physical, hard-nosed defense on Bryant one-on-one, and paid for it: not only did he pick up 5 fouls, but he hit the deck after several of them. Also credit the Magic's overall team defense, which trapped Bryant every time he touched the ball in the fourth quarter.
Speaking of defense, Dwight Howard played the sort that wins awards tonight. If he somehow manages not to win the Defensive Player of the Year award this season, I'll be shocked. Dwight paid attention to his Olympic teammate Chris Bosh in Beijing this summer, judging by the frequency with which he was able to trap Lakers ball-handlers on pick-and-rolls and successfully get back to his man before he could make a play. That's exactly what happened at the 7:22 mark of the fourth period, when Dwight aggressively trapped Sasha Vujacic on the pick-and-roll, chased him across the right side of the lane, then raced back to Pau Gasol in time to block his layup attempt from behind. Turkoglu grabbed the rebound, and the ensuing possession led to a Howard free throw.
As impressive as Nelson was tonight, it was indeed Howard whose overall play contributed most to the victory. As we know, Howard's free-throw shooting is a liability, especially in close games. That's what we thought we knew, anyway. The Magic aggressively fed Dwight in the post on nearly every fourth-quarter possession, and Dwight responded by scoring 12 of his 18 points in the period. He only made 2 field goals, but they were beauties: hook shots over Gasol that dropped softly into the hoop. Maybe tonight is an outlier, as Dwight isn't exactly renowned for his touch around the basket. But the Lakers defended Dwight well enough that he was never able to attempt a dunk. Didn't matter. He got the ball in the basket anyway, and converted at the foul line, making 8 of his last 11 attempts. The Magic already have three proven, go-to scorers on their roster with Rashard Lewis, Turkoglu, and Nelson. With a few more repeat performances from Dwight this season, we can safely bump that number to four.
What's especially encouraging about Dwight's fourth-quarter touches is that he demanded them. Van Gundy told reporters that Howard said, "Get me the ball!" at least three times during the game. Obviously, Dwight is aware of his poor free throw shooting. Obviously, Dwight doesn't care, and would like the damn ball, thanks. I know I'm sounding a bit silly here, but it is, quite frankly, awesome to see Dwight assert himself.
A brief comment on the Lakers before I wrap up: they, like the Spurs on Thursday night, caught the Magic on the second night of a back-to-back. We will, no doubt, hear the media discuss in the coming days that the Magic are simply lucky to play an easy schedule. here's the thing: the Lakers were coming off the second night of a back-to-back... and they played damn well. The Magic didn't pummel a tired team that played poorly into submission for 48 minutes, as they did Thursday: they eked out a tough win--Vujacic's would-be game-winning trey rattled around and out with 3 seconds left--against a tired team that played well. The Spurs/Lakers parallel doesn't work. It is, as Chuck Klosterman might say, an apples-to-baby-wolverines comparison.
One must wonder, though, just what sort of effect Kobe's first-half brilliance had on the offense. He didn't have much in the tank late in the game--why else would he dish the ball to Vujacic on that last play, rather than take the difficult-but-not-impossible layup?--and the Lakers' inability or abject refusal to establish any sort of inside game early appeared to haunt them late. The argument that Bryant is selfish and his shot selection harms the Lakers doesn't convince me of anything, because a) he tries to get his teammates involved and b) when one of the greatest players in the world is in a zone, you don't take the ball out of his hands. Nevertheless, Gasol, Lamar Odom, and Andrew Bynum were shells of themselves tonight.
More thoughts after the jump.
In 9 minutes off the bench, Marcin Gortat had 2 points, 2 rebounds, and 3 blocks. He also drew a charge and altered several shots at the rim. Remember last year, when Adonal Foyle was the only legitimate big man the Magic had coming off the bench? Now they have Gortat and Tony Battie, defensive stalwarts both, who don't make many mistakes offensively, either. This is encouraging.
For the first time, I saw Mike Wilks sitting behind the Magic's bench. Wilks was to be the Magic's third point guard, but he shredded his knee during the preseason and will not play this year. He's still on the roster, but I had no idea he was exactly obligated to travel with the team or to attend games. Has anyone noticed him with the team before, either at home or on the road? A little help?
Mickael Pietrus played for the first time since Thanksgiving, when he tore a ligament in his right thumb. He looked rusty, as can be expected, but also a bit, uh, mentally rusty. Peaches had a forgettable game, missing 8 of 10 shots and playing sub-par defense on Bryant. Pietrus is a guy who doesn't hurt the Magic when he's taking threes from the corners or driving to the basket for dunks. But when he tries to create off the dribble, Orlando has problems. If he takes any more contested, fadeaway 20-footers, after pump-faking from behind the arc, I'm going to be a very sad panda.
Speaking of sad pandas, how about Joe Crawford? The lead official warned both benches to stop chirping... after the first quarter. He whistled Bynum for a technical after Bynum indicated he did not, in fact, lift his pivot foot when Crawford called him for traveling.
More sad pandas: Lamar Odom. He made only 1 of his 7 shots, fouled out, and really wanted a piece of Dwight Howard after a scrum for a loose ball. Dwight just walked away. Odom... wow. I don't know what's gotten into him.
We'll close on a happy note: Jameer Nelson, as someone in the open thread pointed out, stands a decent chance of winning the Eastern Conference Player of the Week award. Nelson led the Magic in scoring in all three games this week--all victories--and, more importantly, has scored at key times during those games.
Big win. Hooray.