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Orlando Magic 94, Los Angeles Clippers 85

The Orlando Magic outlasted the L.A. Clippers Sunday night, 94-85, after jumping out to a 35-14 lead in the first quarter. The Clippers won each subsequent quarter as the Magic's opportunities to run dwindled, and pulled to within six points in the early stages of the final frame before Dwight Howard returned from a long, foul-prompted absence to restore order, sealing the win for Orlando. The franchise center scored 13 of his team-best 22 points in the final period, and did so effortlessly as the Clippers laughably attempted to defend him with three-point specialist Brian Cook. Indeed, a real-life NBA team assigned a veteran jump-shooter to guard the league's best center. It didn't work. Matched up against Cook, Howard scored a quick lefty layup from the right block and followed that up with his patented backdoor lob play, wherein he feints as though he's setting a high screen for the ballhandler, only to spin back and elevate for an alley-oop jam. Howard served as Orlando's closer tonight, which is strange, because with a 21-point lead after the first period against the league's worst team, closing shouldn't be an issue.

Orlando started the game with plenty of energy, pushing the pace whenever possible and looking for transition baskets against an often clueless Clippers defense. As a result, Orlando got 12 fast-break points in the opening period alone, compared to 18 in their previous six games combined. In the half court, the Magic fed Vince Carter in the low post whenever possible. Carter took the smaller, yet stocky, Eric Gordon to the blocks on the Magic's first three possessions and scored each time, though Clippers center DeAndre Jordan helped him a bit by goaltending his first offering. Curiously, Carter would attempt just 9 more field goals in his remaining 33 minutes on the court.

While the Magic's offense hummed in the early going, the Clippers' sputtered. The Magic played with quick, active hands defensively, discouraging ball movement. No Clipper seemed prepared to shoot once he got the ball, which resulted in myriad poor shot attempts and only five makes in the period. Orlando got five dunks of its own, just to give you an idea of how things really clicked.

Team Pace Efficiency eFG% FT Rate OReb% TO Rate
Magic 86 109.3 52.0% 21.3 26.2 14.0
Clippers 86 98.8 40.5% 20.2 20.4 9.3
Green denotes a stat better than the team's season average;
red denotes a stat worse than the team's season average.

The rest of the game, though, the Magic seemed to let up. They took jumpers early in the shot-clock instead of driving the ball, particularly in the second quarter. And once Eric Gordon and Blake Griffin found their rhythm, and got the crowd into the game, the Clippers' defense picked up, too.

Howard's foul trouble turned the tide in this game. Just 1:34 into the second half, Howard caught the ball while planted inside the charge circle, with Jordan, his defender, pinned under the hoop. Jordan hit the deck when Howard turned to dunk, and Joe Crawford, the referee furthest away from the play, whistled Howard for an offensive foul. Perhaps it was the proper call, but it appeared to me that Howard had established position inside. He didn't turn into Jordan with his elbows out, or anything like that. The best call in that situation, the way I saw it, was not to whistle any foul at all. Anyway, without Howard to muck up the Clippers' defense, the Magic shot 4-of-15 from the floor for 10 points the rest of the period.

Don't get me wrong: Marcin Gortat had a productive night in extended minutes relieving Howard. He made both his shot attempts and grabbed 9 rebounds in 24 minutes. But the easy looks Orlando got in the first period didn't avail themselves for much of the rest of the game, and Howard's absence only complicated the situation for Orlando.

Gordon and Griffin combined for 55 points tonight, and maybe there's a tendency to think the Magic didn't defend them well. I'm not so sure. The pair used an estimated 55 shooting possessions to get there. Essentially, they scored because the Clippers don't have anyone else who can. For comparison, Howard, Carter, and Jameer Nelson nearly matched the Griffin/Gordon combination with 52 points, but Orlando's trio used only 42 shooting possessions. Let's not overlook efficiency.

Ordinarily, I think the Magic might not feel too great about this sort of win. Losing the three final quarters of a game against the worst team in the league, letting that team ever get close despite trailing by as many as 26 points in the second period, would seriously be cause for concern. But Orlando's won for the first time in over a week, and it played with an uncommon level of energy and speed, at least in the first period. Right now, the Magic need positives on which to build. This win--any win--is a start.

Of note: Brandon Bass notched the first double-double of his Magic career. He finished with 13 points and 11 rebounds.