GameNight: 2:30 p.m., 3/7/10, Orlando vs. L.A. Lakers
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ORLANDO (NBA.com exclusive) -- Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic like to remind folks that the matchup for the NBA Finals isn't carved in stone.
"All you hear is the Lakers and Cleveland," Howard said after the Magic's 96-94 victory over the Lakers on Sunday. "People can talk about whoever they want to see in the Finals, but it's all going to come down to the team that wins the most games at playoff time. Hopefully that'll be us."
Kobe Bryant missed a jumper that would have sent the game into overtime and the Lakers (46-18) lost their third straight, their longest streak in more than two years.
The Magic (44-20) led almost all the way in a game that included 53 personal fouls, three technicals, one flagrant foul and a lot of bad blood, especially between Bryant and Magic forward Matt Barnes.
"It is entertaining," said Bryant, whose 34 points came on 12-for-30 shooting. "These are the types of things we like to see when you start getting to potential Finals contenders . . . It is that time of year; it's good to get a little chippy."
In fact, Bryant liked this loss better than the first two.
"The last two games (in Miami and Charlotte) we did not play with the sense of urgency to compete," he said. "Tonight we did. We played really, really hard; we just missed some things defensively. But all in all, our defense was able to keep us in the game."
Howard had 15 points, 16 rebounds and an explanation of why things got so physical.
"You had a team full of pit bulls and a team full of cane corsos, and that's what happens," he said. "We're the pit bulls. Pit bulls are a little bit shorter, but we get the job done."
Especially on the boards. Orlando outrebounded the Lakers, 50-39, with the help of a season-high nine boards by point guard Jameer Nelson.
"Bar none, he's the best dwarf to ever rebound," Howard said.
In a wild second half that saw seven points taken off the board by replays, the Magic took a 71-59 lead on a 10-2 run. It would have been
13-2 except for a replay determination that Rashard Lewis' 3-point basket had come after the shot clock expired.
Bryant, who missed seven straight shots after scoring 13 points in the first quarter, shot the Lakers back into the game in the fourth quarter. He scored 18 points in the period, even though his 3-pointer that would have tied the game, 95-95, was changed to a two-pointer with
20.6 seconds left.
Vince Carter led the Magic with 25 points, 15 of them in the first quarter.
Six missed free throws by the Magic in the final quarter, including three in the final minute, kept the Lakers in the game.
"I didn't think we played very well, to be honest," said Magic coach Stan Van Gundy. "Twenty turnovers is not good. I keep saying it, but we've got to find a way to handle the basketball better. We missed some key free throws down the stretch. So I didn't think we played very well, but I thought we played very, very, very hard."
To Lakers coach Phil Jackson, the issue was not the number of free throws the Magic missed, but how many they took.
"There are some things that as an experienced team, we should not have happen to us," Jackson said. "Fouling guys when they're shooting and creating situations where you give up 39 foul shots -- that's an inordinate amount of foul shots for a team in an NBA game."
Pau Gasol tasted a third straight loss for the first time since being traded to the Lakers on Feb. 1, 2008.
"I'm worried about what we can do to win ballgames and win a championship. I don't worry about streaks," Gasol said.
The loss came on the same floor on which the Lakers celebrated their NBA championship 38 weeks ago. Asked if that memory was foremost on his mind when he walked into the arena that will be replaced next season, Jackson said no.
"I thought about this franchise and its history and the (1992) All-Star Game they had here a number of years ago," he said, "and this will be the last time we'll see this arena."
Orlando Magic fans have long-awaited the return of the L.A. Lakers to Amway Arena since last year’s NBA Finals. There would potentially be nothing more satisfying for Magic supporters to get revenge on the reigning champions.
On Sunday in front of a national audience, the Magic will have an opportunity to earn some retribution when they host the Lakers at 2:30 p.m. ET on ABC.
Last June, L.A. captured its 15th NBA Title when it eliminated Orlando in five games. However, the Magic played very competitively in the series and nearly won two of the four games they lost.
It would be a humongous confidence builder if the Magic can prove they can beat the Lakers. The last time these two teams played at STAPLES Center on Jan. 18, L.A. snuck out a 98-92 triumph. Orlando, nonetheless, played extremely well and for a portion of the contest thoroughly outplayed the West’s top squad.
Dwight Howard registered 24 points and 12 rebounds, while Rashard Lewis posted 18 points and Matt Barnes had an all-around solid game with 13 points, eight rebounds and seven assists.
Since that loss, the Magic are an impressive 17-5 and have re-established their dominance in the Eastern Conference.
It will be a special scene at Amway on Sunday, so if you have tickets to the game, make sure you wear your most creative Magic fan apparel to show your loyalty. The Magic will certainly need your support.
Mar. 7 vs. L.A. Lakers: Orlando is 11-31 all-time vs. the L.A. Lakers (7-14 at home, 4-17 on the road) during the regular season, including 0-1 this season (see recap below)…The Magic went 2-0 last regular season against the Lakers…Orlando fell to the Lakers, 1-4, in the 2009 NBA Finals…The Magic have lost 16 of the last 22 games in this series…Orlando has lost eight of the last 11 meetings at home, and snapped a 10-game losing skid at Los Angeles on Dec. 2, 2007 (104-97)...Ryan Anderson attended the University of California and went to Oak Ridge High School in El Dorado Hills, CA…Matt Barnes played four years at UCLA from 1998-2002…For last season’s stats and Magic career numbers vs. the Lakers, see p. 260 of the media guide…Jan. 18 @ L.A. Lakers – Lakers 98, Magic 92: Shannon Brown came off the bench and led the Lakers with a career-high 22 points, as Los Angeles defeated Orlando, 98-92, at STAPLES Center. It was the first meetings between the two clubs since the 2009 NBA Finals. Pau Gasol tallied 17 points and 10 rebounds, while Kobe Bryant had 11 points on just 4-of-19 shooting from the field. Dwight Howard led the Magic with 24 points and 12 rebounds. Orlando trailed 52-47 at halftime, but used a strong third quarter to grab 68-64 edge. However, the Lakers opened the final stanza with a 15-0 run and would not relinquish the lead again. Orlando committed 13 turnovers that led to 21 Los Angeles points.
BEST ALL-TIME SCORING PERFORMANCE VS. LAKERS: 46 pts., Shaquille O’Neal (@ Orlando, 3-8-95)
BEST ALL-TIME SCORING PERFORMANCE VS. MAGIC: 41 pts., Kobe Bryant (@ Orlando, 11-12-04, @ Orlando, 12-20-08)