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Orlando Magic 123, New Orleans Hornets 117

In a hotly contested contest that's sure to go down as one of the best in the Orlando Magic's 21-year history, Vince Carter scored 34 of his 48 points in the second half to lead Orlando, which trailed by 15 points at halftime, to a 123-117 win over the New Orleans Hornets. Carter shot 19-of-27 from the field and 6-of-10 from three-point range for his highest-scoring game since February 2000, when he lit up the Phoenix Suns Miami Heat for 51 points. Dwight Howard was instrumental in the win, scoring 25 points, grabbing 12 boards, blocking 4 shots, and setting countless screens for Carter. Carter and Howard, with help from Rashard Lewis' 18 points, were enough to counter impressive offensive performances from Peja Stojakovic (29 points on 11-of-18 shooting), David West, (27 points on 10-of-19), and speedy rookie point guard Darren Collison (27 points on 12-of-22, 9 assists). For the second consecutive day, Orlando rallied from a double-digit deficit in the second half to come away with a surprising win.

Team Pace Efficiency eFG% FT Rate OReb% TO Rate
Hornets 98 119.1 56.7% 18.0 16.7 12.2
Magic 99 124.0 61.4% 25.3 18.8 14.1
Green denotes a stat better than the team's season average;
red denotes a stat worse than the team's season average.

Carter hit from just about everywhere, and he's obviously the story of the game. No question about that. But it's important that we at least recognize, for a moment, that Orlando held New Orleans to 47 second-half points after allowing 70 in the first half. The Magic abandoned their strategy of overloading the strong side of the floor when West caught the ball in the post, which prevented any quick ball reversals to three-point shooters. They were also better prepared to contend with the Hornets' relentless pace. In the first half, New Orleans created mismatches by sprinting back even after an Orlando basket; the best word I can think of to describe New Orleans' first-half offense is "opportunistic." It found a hole, any hole, in Orlando's defense and exploited it. I attribute much of their brilliance to Collison, who filled in admirably for Chris Paul once again.

But back to Carter. The obvious question is, "how did he do it?" For starters, he attacked the basket more aggressively and decisively than he had all year. With Hornets center Emeka Okafor, a defensive ace, saddled with foul trouble--another Howard contribution--New Orleans had no credible shot-blocking presence to deter Carter. He saw the advantage and drove at the likes of Sean Marks, Aaron Gray, and Darius Songaila with impunity. More importantly, the layups dropped. It seems easy to say, sure, but Carter's made less than half of his shots at the rim this season. Tonight, no misses at the basket that I can remember. Scoring at will.

He also exploited Morris Peterson in the post. The Magic don't have Carter post-up much, so it was a surprise to see them continually call his number on the left block. He just muscled his way past Peterson or, less frequently, Collison, for a layup, like it was nothing.

But with 6 treys in 10 attempts, it's also apparent that he did his fair share of bombing away as well. In the early going, Jameer Nelson's dribble penetration set him up. But as the game wore on, and with Orlando needing buckets on just about every possession, coach Stan Van Gundy put the ball in Carter's hands and let him run the show. Carter got his own shot off the dribble essentially at will, no matter who the Hornets threw at him. James Posey and Peterson proved to be no match. But it's also important to note that Carter, to my eyes, took more balanced shots tonight. He launched the occasional leaning or fading heat-check, but for the most part, he shot straight-up, with picture-perfect balance.

He had some problems defensively, mostly by losing track of Stojakovic on cuts. But truthfully, everyone had trouble with Stojakovic tonight. The veteran fooled Matt Barnes into several comical leaping close-outs with an array of fakes, thus clearing himself for an easy jumper. And with Stojakovic, an easy jumper is a made jumper. The man is automatic. Unfortunately for the Hornets, Carter was nearly automatic himself.

A final word: nevermind his 2-of-8 shooting, or the fact that Jason Williams closed the game out: Nelson was spectacular. We often hear complaints about his inability to run an offense or distribute the ball, but here he is, racking up 10 assists in just 25 minutes of work, with 8 of those 10 leading to three-point baskets. Nelson drive-and-kicked his way through New Orleans' defense and spotted up when appropriate. Really, he's taking the same sorts of shots he did last year, when he became an All-Star. The obvious difference is that they're not falling. Tonight, he proved he could be effective as a playmaker. It should've been apparent before--he has nothing left to prove, not to me, anyway--but, well, there it is.