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Los Angeles Lakers 98, Orlando Magic 92

The Orlando Magic played excellent ball for long stretches tonight against the Los Angeles Lakers, battling back from a 13-point deficit only to allow the Lakers to score the first 15 points of the fourth quarter, and ultimately lost their third straight game by a score of 98-92. Dwight Howard shone in one of his best offensive performances of the season, scoring 24 points on 10-of-14 shooting with a mix of hooks, dunks, and even two surprising bank-shots. However, he managed just 2 field goal attempts in the second half as L.A. began double-teaming him, forcing him to become a playmaker. Rashard Lewis was the only other Magic player able to work himself into a rhythm, scoring 18 points on 11 shots. Meanwhile, the Lakers' reserve backcourt of Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown ignited their comeback, with Brown leading the Lakers with a career-best 22 points. Reserve do-everything forward Lamar Odom pitched in with 9 points, a game-high 16 rebounds (6 offensive), and 5 assists. Orlando can console itself only with the knowledge that it showed flashes of championship-caliber defense. The Magic reach this season's halfway point 7 games off last season's pace and a half-game back of Atlanta for the Southeast Division lead.

Team Pace Efficiency eFG% FT Rate OReb% TO Rate
Magic 89 103.5 50.6% 11.0 20.9 14.6
Lakers 92 106.7 46.1% 18.0 22.2 7.6
Green denotes a stat better than the team's season average;
red denotes a stat worse than the team's season average.

After the game, Magic coach Stan Van Gundy had mixed feelings; John Denton of transcribed some of his comments here. He praised his team's resiliency in the first half, noting that his players had not demonstrated it recently. Facing a 13-point deficit against the defending champions, on the road, allowing three three-pointers in the game's first 7 minutes? Let's be serious for a moment: based on the Magic's play of late, you thought L.A. had already put the game away, hadn't you? Instead, Orlando rattled off a 7-0 run and closed the quarter trailing by only 8 points. Progress.

That momentum carried into the second and third periods, when Orlando played exceptional defense and wrested the lead from L.A. Howard keyed the second-quarter rally with 10 points on 5-of-8 shooting, with Ryan Anderson tossing in back-to-back treys to bring Orlando to within 5 at halftime. It's instructive to note that Howard did his damage against single-coverage... the very same coverage with which L.A. stymied him in last year's Finals. Again, progress.

But as Van Gundy said--going back to my earlier remark about mixed feelings--"it's not a very good feeling" when your team plays better than it has in a while and still comes up on the losing end. As was the case against Detroit in early November, Orlando could not counter its opponent's stable of small, quick, shoot-first guards. The Magic held Kobe Bryant to 11 points on 4-of-19 shooting--though he is, again, dealing with finger issues that have tanked his shooting touch--yet could not handle Brown or Farmar. And with Lakers coach Phil Jackson adjusting his defense of Howard at halftime, sending double-teams at him to force Orlando's other players to score, the Magic lost their most reliable offensive weapon. Just two second-half shot attempts for Howard, none until the 4:01 mark of the final period, and one of those attempts was a tip-in. Van Gundy said that, based on assistant coach Patrick Ewing's notes, Howard got "10 or 12" low-post touches in the second half, "which is a lot." He just couldn't get anything going against the double-teams. Part of that is L.A.'s defense, and part of that is an impatient Orlando offense, as I'll explain in a bit. Remember that Howard, as a center, cannot create offense for himself in the same way Bryant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, or other perimeter-oriented stars can. He needs his teammates to deliver him the ball in position. Criticism of Howard for failing to establish position has been warranted at some times this year. Tonight isn't such an occasion, though.

Lewis stepped up after halftime with 11 points on 4-of-5 shooting to lead Orlando's run in the third period, which coincided with the Magic's best defensive stands of the season at the other end. In the third, the Lakers missed 17 of their 22 shots and scored 12 points, outscoring Lewis himself by the slimmest of margins. They also committed 2 shot-clock violations against a Magic team that took away all their offensive options.

The fourth quarter meltdown--and I don't want to take anything away from the Lakers here--was mostly self-inflicted. With a 5-point lead, the Magic were content to shoot three-pointers and ignore Howard on the inside. A more measured, patient approach would have, at the very least, eaten away at the game clock, which is a plus when holding a lead. Here's how the Magic's possessions went while L.A. went on its decisive, 15-0 run:

  • shot-clock violation as Jason Williams dished to Mickael Pietrus for a three-pointer too late;

  • missed Anderson transition three-pointer;

  • missed Williams three-pointer;

  • Anderson bad-pass turnover;

  • missed Anderson transition three-pointer

  • Howard offensive foul turnover as he pushed Pau Gasol making his move inside from the right block (Howard's lone turnover of the game);

  • missed Jameer Nelson layup;

  • Nelson bad-pass turnover;

  • Matt Barnes bad-pass turnover;

  • missed Lewis jumper;

You can see the Magic starting to get the right idea later in that sequence, with Howard's offensive foul and Nelson's missed layup indicative of a more aggressive approach. But really, Williams and Anderson's misfires in transition took Orlando out of the game and helped the Lakers' small guards push the tempo. The bad passes did, too. It was a perfect storm of factors that more-or-less decided the game.

I know Nelson doesn't come out looking too great in that play-by-play above, and he registered more shot attempts (14) than points (13) tonight, but this loss is hardly on his shoulders. For the most part, he made the right decisions, and he drove the ball aggressively too. He demonstrated the right mix of perimeter and interior shooting, and this sort of effort is what the Magic hope to see out of him going forward. They'd also like to see him draw fouls, as he didn't attempt a single free throw on Orlando's four-game road trip. Truthfully, though, some of the drives he made tonight would have resulted in free throws with a different officiating crew. That's not a criticism of the referees, who let both teams play fairly physically and called what was, in my opinion, a fair, consistent game.

Vince Carter continues to struggle. In his second game back from a mild left shoulder separation, he missed 8 of his 11 shots, and attempted 8 three-pointers. It's clear that the aching shoulder has made him think twice about going to the basket, where he might draw contact. And he did aggravate the shoulder injury trying to defend Ron Artest in the low post when Artest turned to face-up and banged into it. He's just not right, as has been the case for the last two months. If you're looking for positives, his 3-for-8 performance from long range made him 20-of-81 since December. He's approaching 25%! (Sorry. The snark eases the frustration.)

Orlando returns home for its next 2 games, but the schedule doesn't ease up. Likely lottery teams Indiana and Sacramento have played the Magic tough this year, and they're due to visit Amway Arena. After that? Visits to streaking Charlotte and Memphis, which are on concurrent 8-game home winning streaks. Then it's back to Orlando for games against Boston and Atlanta, which currently lead the Magic in the standings. That's... well, I don't know about "brutal," but the word "unkind" comes to mind. The Magic might be able to build off this game--Lewis said as much in the previously linked Denton story--but if they intend to, they'll have to do it in a hurry. The season's half over, and they need to hit their stride, lest they wind up choking on more of the dust Cleveland, Boston, and Atlanta have kicked up in the Eastern Conference race.