Matt Barnes is not afraid, he is a football player after all. He is not afraid of getting in anyone’s face. He is not afraid of cursing on Twitter (although, the team has asked him to dial that back). He is not afraid of Paul Pierce. He is not afraid of LeBron James. He is not afraid of Kobe Bryant.
Barnes went toe to toe with Bryant on Sunday. And the six-year pro got a rare win over Bryant.
It was Barnes who followed a Bryant miss with a wide open 3-point hit with 1:10 remaining to give the Magic a six-point lead. It was Barnes who got into a shoving fight with Bryant earning the two technical fouls for the effort. It was Barnes who was constantly shoving and playing mind games with the Black Mamba throughout the day to throw him off his game.
It was Barnes who ultimately was defending Bryant as his fade-away two-pointer clanged off the rim no good, allowing the Magic to survive with a 96-94 win at Amway Arena on Sunday afternoon, avenging in part last year’s loss to the Lakers in the Finals.
Barnes never does too much that stands out in the box score. But it was hard not to notice him in this one. He was jawing with Bryant all game and doing everything he could to throw the superstar off his game.
He finished with 10 points, six rebounds, four personal fouls, a steal and a technical foul. Bryant scored 34 points, but shot 12 of 30 to get it and added seven rebounds and seven assists.
The chess match between the two clearly had Kobe’s attention. Bryant gave Barnes a small shove after Barnes had a put back dunk in the second half. The two were battling all day and set the tone for the game.
Because this game (at least its ending) resembled Game Four of last year’s NBA Finals almost to a tee. Barnes’ three gave Orlando a six-point lead, but the Lakers found a way once again to cut into it thanks to the Magic gifting some points back to them.
Jameer Nelson, Vince Carter and Dwight Howard all missed a free throw in the final minute of the game, giving Los Angeles a faint glimmer of hope. As the Magic learned last year, the Lakers will take that glimmer any time they can get it. Bryant hit a contested three in the corner and then a two-pointer with his foot on the 3-point line to make it a one-point game with 12.9 seconds left.
Orlando was crumbling a bit at the end, but what made this game different than the Finals was that the Magic found a way to pull it out in the end. Confidence gained.
The Magic showed themselves to be a much tougher and grittier team. Orlando was willing to make some hard fouls and not stand for the physical play Dwight Howard had to endure throughout the game. There was an overt toughness element missing about last year’s team (they were plenty tough, but they certainly were not willing to try and out-physical a team as they proved in their continued struggles with the Pistons). Tonight, Orlando matched Los Angeles’ physicality.
And Barnes had a lot to do with that. He is the one who got in Paul Pierce’s face a few weeks back after a hard foul on Howard. He was the one blowing through a Jonas Jerebko screen to show Detroit not to try anything funny against Orlando. Barnes set the tone for this game and was one of the key reasons Orlando pulled this one out.
This game proved that while the Lakers may still be a favorite to win the title and can still do many of the same things they could against the Magic last year, this is a much different Magic team.
Howard, who struggled throughout the Finals, continued to struggle against Los Angeles’ big front line. He was unable to unleash the post moves he used to dominate the Lakers in their meeting back in January. Instead Andrew Bynum did a good job keeping Howard in front of him and making his shots difficult and Los Angeles did a good job shadowing Howard all game and making it difficult for him to pass.
Add Howard’s foul problems all game and it was a frustrating night for Superman.
But he came through in the fourth quarter and got involved on the offensive glass and by running the floor. Howard was active defensively and for the most part played smart after picking up his fourth foul in the third quarter. He finished with 15 points and 16 rebounds, five offensive, and shot six for 14. He hit one of two free throws late, not completely exorcising the demons of the two he missed with Orlando up three in Game Four of the Finals last year.
What kept the Magic going throughout was the All-Star performance of Jameer Nelson. Nelson was the main creator tonight, scoring 15 points, grabbing nine rebounds and dishing out seven assists. Orlando held the lead for the majority of the second half and pulled away to a 10-point lead at the end of the third quarter thanks to Nelson’s drive and kicks. He picked his spots to score and did a better job reading the defense and figuring out where to dish the ball.
Vince Carter got the offense going early, scoring 12 of his 25 points in the first quarter. He did this on one field goal too (on one attempt), hitting 10 of 10 free throws in the opening frame. Carter attacked the basket less as the game progressed, but he attacked it late too to help the Magic keep the offense stoked throughout the game.
And there were plenty of times the offense was struggling. Orlando shot 41.1 percent from the floor and committed 20 turnovers. Especially early in the fourth quarter when the Lakers came back and made sure the game would be tense down the stretch, the Magic struggled to hold on to the basketball. Part of it was Los Angeles’ active and long hands causing deflections and disrupting what Orlando wanted to do.
But the Magic survived all this. As mentioned above, Carter got to the line 10 times in the first quarter alone and hit 13 of 14 for the game (that one miss proved to be an important one late in the game though). Orlando shot 28 of 39 from the line for the game.
The refs were certainly very whistle happy today — Los Angeles shot 23 of 26 themselves and drew 25 fouls on Orlando. But the free throws helped keep the Magic offense afloat when it was struggling.
The defense tonight was pretty solid too, except for the fouls. Orlando allowed only 37.5 percent shooting from Los Angeles and kept Bryant pretty much in check. Bryant had 13 in the first quarter and 18 in the fourth. He was quiet otherwise (again kudos to Matt Barnes and Mickael Pietrus).
Pau Gasol again gave Orlando problems, scoring 20 points and grabbing 11 rebounds. But the Magic rotated really well and limited second chance opportunities. No one else really burned Orlando tonight and the team forced Los Angeles to be a team dominated by its stars. That is usually a recipe for success against this team.
It was very cathartic for the Amway Arena crowd to see the Magic top the Lakers in a close game in their first trip back to Orlando since last year’s Finals. But this is just one game and there are still plenty of things to fix.
The broadcasters on ABC criticized the Magic for being a complacent team. They certainly did not show any complacency and for the most part kept their emotions in check in doing what needed to be done to earn a crucial regular season victory.