The Orlando Magic stayed competitive with the Los Angeles Lakers into the second half of Tuesday's game, wherein Dwight Howard returned to Amway Center for the first time since the Magic traded him, but they fell apart in the second half and ultimately lost by a 106-97 final; the game was not as close as that score might make it appear. Howard finished with 39 points, 16 rebounds, and three blocks--all game highs--and punished the Magic for intentionally fouling him by burying 24 of his final 31 free-throw attempts. The win puts Howard in league with Anfernee Hardaway and Tracy McGrady as hated former Orlando superstars who beat the Magic in their first games back after leaving the team.
Tobias Harris had 17 points and a career-high 15 rebounds for the Magic and helped buoy Orlando's offense early with his ability to create for himself off the dribble. Jameer Nelson led Orlando with 21 points but shot just 1-of-8 from three-point range.
Howard opened the game by winning the tipoff, and Bryant opened the scoring with a three-pointer from the top of the key against minimal defensive pressure. On L.A.'s next possession, Bryant hoisted another three, this one from the right wing. It missed the mark, but Howard tipped it in for his first points and to loud boos from the Amway Center crowd. Howard encouraged the booing, clapping his hands and smiling as he retreated on defense.
Those same fans roared on the Lakers' next trip when Howard short-rimmed a jump hook against Nikola Vučević, on which play the Orlando center received credit for a block.
Howard made his presence felt defensively at the 8:35 mark when he rejected a floater by Harris, the 20-year-old forward who took Howard's no. 12 with the Magic. If that play, or the Amway Center atmosphere in general, phased Harris, the Tennessee product didn't show it. He finished the first period with eight points and seven rebounds, both of which figures led all players.
Harris' relentlessness on the glass recalled Howard's during his Magic tenure. Harris' ability to push the pace by bringing the ball up on his own rebounds helps Orlando leverage its transition, and his attack on one such play in the first quarter produced an open dunk attempt for Maurice Harkless. Harkless missed the slam, but earned two free-throw attempts, making one. The conversion gave Orlando a 23-22 lead, with which it would end the quarter. Beno Udrih had a chance to extend the lead to four points with a running three-point attempt from the right wing, but the shot rattled around and out at the horn. Udrih had to expend a lot of energy just to get the shot up, eluding Bryant and Jodie Meeks with a series of moves as he dribbled up the floor off a steal by E'Twaun Moore.
The Lakers took control at the start of the second quarter, scoring nine of its first 10 points to take a 31-24 lead. The Magic ran their offense through backup center Al Harrington, who struggled to get good shots up. Arron Afflalo beat Jodie Meeks off the dribble about two minutes into the second quarter, but Howard erased Afflalo's floater attempt for his second rejection of the night.
Howard couldn't keep the lane closed forever, though, as Jameer Nelson showed when he blew past Steve Blake and finished at the rim with Howard a step late in rotating over. Orlando tried to create shots at the basket by attacking it and sending cutters in from the weakside simultaneously. This approach clogged the lane, but also forced the Lakers to help and recover, and it kept Howard moving. Orlando didn't convert the first two times it ran this action.
The Lakers met little resistance from Orlando's defense and maanged to get good shots on nearly every possession. On one trip late in the second quarter, Steve Nash ran a high pick-and-roll with Howard. Nash drove to his left around the Howard screen and drove to the left box before dropping a pass off for Howard to slam. The play developed at half speed, almost as though it was a drill.
Magic coach Jacque Vaughn then elected to foul Howard, who entered the game shooting 47.8 percent from the free-throw line, away from the ball on almost every trip. Howard shot 1-of-8 from the foul line to open the game, but made eight of his next 11 to finish the half with 19 points and 10 rebounds.
L.A. took a four-point lead into halftime behind strong play from Howard and Metta World Peace (13 points on 5-of-8 shooting). Bryant went scoreless after sinking the first shot of the game, missing all six of his field goals and failing to earn any free-throw attempts.
Afflalo kick-started a Magic's run to start the third period, scoring six points in the opening four minutes, 45 seconds. His layup in delayed transition gave Orlando a 57-56 lead, its first since the opening minutes of the second quarter. A Harris rejection of Howard keyed the fast break which led to Afflalo's go-ahead bucket.
Former Magic players helped L.A. respond after that basket, with Earl Clark hitting a pair of three-pointers and Howard going 3-of-4 from the foul line to key a 9-2 Lakers run, and the only Orlando points in that stretch came as a result of Clark goaltending a layup attempt by Harris.
Back-to-back baskets by Bryant gave L.A. a 71-59 lead, its largest of the night. The first was an uncontested jumper from just inside the three-point arc, while the second was a three over Magic center Al Harrington, who had picked Bryant up n a switch. Following a Nelson layup, Bryant and Howard ran another pick-and-roll and the veteran two-guard again drew Harrington on a switch. He fired the ball inside to Howard dor an easy dunk to boost the lead back to 12 and to prompt Vaughn to call another timeout. Orlando appeared to be out of answers on both sides of the ball.
A jumper by Antawn Jamison at the 10:44 mark of the fourth gave the Lakers a 14-point edge, their largest of the night to that point. Jamison followed that basket with a layup after he snuck in behind Andrew Nicholson, putting L.A. up by 16 points. The Lakers put together this stretch with Howard, Bryant, and Nash all on the bench. Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni wouldn't re-insert them until the 7:12 mark after Udrih drained a triple off the catch to cut L.A.'s lead to 12.
Vaughn experimented with a tiny lineup for much of the fourth quarter, playing Udrih, Nelson, Moore, and Afflalo with Nikola Vučević--an utter non-factor in Tuesday's game--in order to facilitate defensive switches and to space the floor. The fact that Harkless fouled out as a result of Vaughn's strategy of intentionally fouling Howard also may have influenced Vaughn's lineup by limiting his choices.
Orlando hovered within striking distance of the Lakers in the fourth quarter, but was unable to mount a serious challenge. A corner three-pointer by Meeks with 2:54 to play gave the visitors a 102-88 lead and effectively ended the game.