Dwight Howard keyed the Orlando Magic to an impressive defeat of the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday afternoon, 89-75, with 31 points, 13 rebounds, and 3 blocked shots. Orlando limited the Lakers, the league's second-best offensive team, to 71 points on 84 possessions, with purposeful, energetic defense. On the other end, it built its lead with Howard and its three-point shooters. The win is the Magic's first against a team with a plus-.500 record since January 12th.
Clearly, the story here is Howard's dominance against the Lakers' solid defensive front, which boasts Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, two seven-footers who can cover him one-on-one; and Lamar Odom, a 6-foot-10 power forward with enough length and hops to bother his shots. In theory, anyway. In practice, Howard scored with relative ease, shooting 13-of-16 from the floor and 5-of-6 from the foul line for among the tidiest 31-point outings you'll see without the benefit of a three-pointer.
|Green denotes a stat better than the team's season average;
red denotes a stat worse than the team's season average.
Here's some context to illustrate Howard's growth as an offensive player: against this same Lakers front and scheme in the 2009 NBA Finals, he shot 48.8 percent from the floor and averaged just 15.4 points. Today, not even two years later, the Lakers had no answer for him. He showed great patience in the post, but the Magic mixed up his involvement in the offense by looking for him in pick-and-roll situations as well. He managed to create his own shots by hitting the offensive glass, corralling 6 of Orlando's 9 offensive rebounds on the night.
The most encouraging aspect of this win is that this sort of effort is clearly duplicatable. Orlando didn't need any contrivances to build its lead, shooting roughly average on three-pointers (7-of-19 for 36.8 percent) before missing four heaves in the waning moments and the game decided. Instead, it won this game with defense. Kobe Bryant made four straight shots in the second period, but never really factored into the game, scoring only 17 points on his 18 shots, and getting very few good looks at the rim. The same is true for the rest of the Lakers, really, with Bynum, at 8-of-15, the only player to convert more than half his shot attempts.
Today, we saw vintage Stan Van Gundy Magic defense: force the opponent to burn the clock, steer its shooters to the long two-point shot, hit the defensive glass hard, and don't worry about playing the passing lanes. As a result, L.A. only turned the ball over 9 times, but also shot 45.6 percent on two-pointers and 12.5 percent on threes. Moreover, the Lakers' only triples came during a 70-second stretch of the third period, with Ron Artest's bomb from the top of the arc drawing L.A. to within 2. Van Gundy called a timeout to draw up my favorite play out of Orlando's Horns offense, with Jameer Nelson dribbling, left to right, off staggered screens from Ryan Anderson and Dwight Howard. As Nelson turns the corner on the right side of the floor, Howard rolls to the rim, bringing Anderson's defender with him to shade the passing lane. Anderson pops to the top of the key and drains a wide-open three-pointer. That shot settled the game down a bit.
Orlando kept the Lakers at bay in the third, and then finished them off in the fourth with a Howard jumper, a Howard hook, layups from Brandon Bass and Gilbert Arenas, a Bass jumper, and Redick three-pointer in the opening five minutes. During that stretch, the Lakers mustered only 7 points as Orlando's defense continued to limit them to one, usually difficult, shot attempt per possession. Neither team made many trips to the foul line today--a product of lenient, but consistent, officiating from Danny Crawford's crew--which took away another avenue for L.A. to score.
All of this is to say there isn't a reason the Magic can't defend this well on a nightly basis, nor any reason why Howard can't get so many touches nightly. And the Magic's offense will typically run more efficiently than it did tonight, with Howard and Arenas combining for 10 of the team's 17 turnovers in a low-possession game. We saw a glimmer of the post-shakeup Magic's potential today for the first time in quite a while. That much has to be encouraging as the season begins drawing to a close.