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Orlando Magic 106, Charlotte Bobcats 95 (OT)

The Orlando Magic frittered away a 16-point lead with 13 minutes to play against the Charlotte Bobcats tonight, but dominated the overtime period, 14-3, to win their third straight game by a final score of 106-95. The Magic's starting backcourt of Jameer Nelson and Vince Carter had a dazzling return to form, as they carried much of the offensive load with 21 points apiece on a combined 67.6% True Shooting against the NBA's best defense. Dwight Howard played through his offensive struggles (4-of-11 shooting, just 4 free-throw attempts) and dominated the defensive end with 17 defensive boards and 7 blocked shots. Role-players J.J. Redick and Matt Barnes hit timely shots for Orlando in its first overtime game of the season. Struggling second-year combo guard D.J. Augustin lit up the Magic for 22 points and five three-pointers off the bench--both figures are season-highs--but he and Nazr Mohammed (12 points and 9 boards in just 24 minutes) were the only Bobcats who could get anything going offensively. Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said "that was a great game for us to have" and that his team played "the best five minutes of defense" of the season during the overtime period.

Team Pace Efficiency eFG% FT Rate OReb% TO Rate
Magic 97 109.7 51.7% 18.4 19.0 12.4
Bobcats 95 100.0 44.9% 18.2 22.6 13.7
Green denotes a stat better than the team's season average;
red denotes a stat worse than the team's season average.

I'd like to say that the teams spent much of the game trading punches, but that'd do the word "punch" a disservice. Both teams played last night, and both were visibly tired. Carter missed his first three shots pretty badly, while Rashard Lewis came up short nearly every time he fired away, even short-rimming an open layup. Nelson kicked the Magic into gear, so to speak, in the third period with a steal and alley-oop feed to Barnes, followed immediately by a contested fast-break layup going at full speed. If his surgically repaired left knee was bothering him, it didn't show. For the second straight game, he looked more like his All-Star self from last season. Aggressive drives, hesitation dribbles, sweet shooting off the dribble... it was, frankly, fun to watch.

But Augustin led the Bobcats back, making two three-pointers in the final minute of the third quarter--he short-rimmed the second one, but it somehow bounced straight up and back down through the net--to cut Orlando's 16-point lead to 10. It's weird to think that, had Orlando gotten a stop and converted at the other end on either of those two defensive possessions, it likely would have put the game away. Instead, Charlotte's rally continued into the fourth period, where the Bobcats erupted for 33 points against what had been some incredibly stout Magic defense. Stephen Jackson forced overtime with a gimme layup that point guard Raymond Felton set up for him, drawing three Magic defenders to him before dropping the ball right to Jackson's sweet spot a few feet from the hoop. Franchise player Gerald Wallace, who did not record a field goal through the first three periods of play, drilled a three-pointer from the left corner and scored on a layup in an isolation set on back-to-back possessions in crunch time. These are the sorts of things that happen to teams who let their guard down, as the Magic did.

But Carter assumed the role of "finisher" for the first time in at least a month--Orlando hasn't been involved in many close games of late--and delivered. After Wallace's layup, he made an acrobatic layup of his own on a pick-and-roll with Howard. The next possession, he drove to the basket and drew a foul, sinking both free throws. After that, another high screen-and-roll with Howard, with Carter dribbling through the lane to the left block, where he dished to Lewis in the left corner for a wide-open--as in, nobody within 10 feet of him--three that just missed. And after that, he isolated against Wallace on the left side and sank a bank shot while falling on his backside. Anyone who argues that Carter can't run the Magic's offense the way Hedo Turkoglu did in each of the last two years should try watching the final few possessions of regulation tonight. And, again, Charlotte is the league's most efficient defense.

They could also watch some first-half footage, with Carter trying intently to get Howard involved in the low-post, with deliberate entry passes. Carter's been accused of taking too many shots and not passing willingly enough. On a season-long basis, those are probably fair charges. But tonight? And last night? Not so much. It's possible that he's starting to get more comfortable in the Magic's system, but we'll need to see how he plays in the next few games to assess that thought fairly. Two good consecutive games do not necessarily constitute a turnaround. Four? Five? Sure.

Nothing came easily to the Bobcats in overtime, and their defense had no answer for Nelson, who opened the period with a stepback jumper off the dribble from the left side, with Augustin defending. After Augustin barely missed a three-pointer from the left corner, Nelson raced down the floor and drew a shooting foul on DeSagana Diop in transition. One thing I liked about this play: Nelson had himself a bit of a laugh after hitting the floor by playing dead for a few seconds before springing back up, all smiles, to sink the ensuing free throws. Fans pile on Magic players, and Howard especially, for laughing during games. In this instance, I like to see the laughter. Nelson's calm in the clutch, and here, the game's outcome was still in doubt. Orlando only led by 2 when he drew the foul.

It's easy to see why Van Gundy was pleased with his team's effort after the game. Orlando played hard, Charlotte made its run to force overtime, but the Magic re-asserted themselves in overtime and played exactly the way they should, at both ends. The overtime was a vintage Magic performance, playing the same brand of defense that propelled them to the NBA Finals last year, and grinding out tough wins on the road.

Thing is, blowing leads on the road has become a trend for this year's team as well. A 16-point lead here, a 9-point lead against the L.A. Lakers on Monday, and a 10-point lead against the lowly Washington Wizards two weeks ago. Orlando needs to address that tendency, which seems to me to stem from settling for too many jump shots on offense. But if you've watched the Magic play this week, you've noticed that they're playing much harder, and much smarter, than they had just two or three weeks ago. Even the notoriously grumpy Van Gundy concedes there are reasons for optimism. He liked that the Magic managed to win despite not shooting well as a team. He also liked that Carter has played more active, aggressive defense, calling that development "a great step."

I guess what I'm getting at is that Orlando doesn't look like a world-beater yet, but it is playing better, and harder, at both ends. A 3-game winning streak against two lottery teams and another mid-tier playoff team is not dominant by any stretch, but, as I've found myself saying a lot lately, it's progress. Carter's last 2 games in particular have been encouraging. More movement in the right direction for Orlando after tonight's hard-fought, team-wide win.