It’s a start.
That was Stan Van Gundy’s terse assessment of Sunday’s 94-85 victory at Staples Center. The Magic raced out to a 26-point lead in the first quarter and looked to rediscover the spark that made them such a potent team early in the season. Then it dropped off. The sluggishness of a four-game losing streak and the near end of a four-game West Coast trip.
Something funny happened on the way to a collapse. Dwight Howard, plagued by foul trouble the entire second half, took over and settled things down. He scored 22 points and grabbed eight rebounds in just less than 25 minutes of play. With Chris Kaman out of the game, Howard simply had his way in the post as long as he was in.
Howard’s ability to help buoy the Magic in the fourth quarter was a positive as the team fought off a hard-charging Clippers team, fighting uphill all game. What happened the rest of the second half remained a puzzle for Orlando. Bad habits appear to be setting in and upsetting patterns appear to be setting in.
The Magic came in to this game trying, as Van Gundy said, to “break” the Clippers early. They did that absolutely pulverizing Los Angeles in every facet. Before the Clippers knew what was going on, the Magic had a comfortable lead.
So, as often happens, cruise control set in and Los Angeles slowly crept back (very slowly and too slowly in this case). Orlando led 35-14 after the first quarter and 59-40 at the half.
What happened in the third quarter was confusing, frustrating and simply astounding. Orlando scored only 10 points, struggling to get in the paint or play with any aggression as Dwight Howard went to the bench early on with his fourth foul. The Clippers, led by the energetic and athletic Blake Griffin and a suddenly hot-shooting and attacking Eric Gordon. The two scored 55 points with Griffin collecting 27 points and 16 rebounds (seven offensive) and Gordon scoring 28.
Los Angeles got the lead into single digits several times in the fourth quarter, but never could finish the comeback and really put some worry into the Orlando faithful. No one could breathe a sight of relief until Rashard Lewis drained a three with about three minutes to play.
But there will be lots of deep breaths to come. The team went flat on both ends of the floor in the second half. Orlando did a good job fighting to make sure the losing streak ended tonight.
Needing to get to that point will surely cause a lot of consternation. But progress was made.
The Magic may have gone ice cold in the third quarter, but they only conceded 19 points. For the game, the Magic had a defensive rating of 98.8 and a 40.5 effective field goal percentage. The Clippers were not able to hit 3-pointers at a consistent rate and missed eight free throws (making 17). No one on Los Angeles aside from Gordon and Griffin were able to generate much offense. So on the defensive end, the Magic were able to buckle down and deliver a solid, if not consistent, effort.
Still, 35 points in a second half is not going to get the job done. Not anywhere near.
Orlando has laid an egg in the last three third quarters and that remains unsettling. It is hard to tell what is the exact cause. Orlando has some offensive issues to work out to keep the level of aggression and energy up. Coming out of the locker room that is not happening.
Tonight the Magic had it early — pushing the pace to get that 20-point lead and scoring 12 fast break points in the first quarter alone — and lost it late. Progress was made as Orlando gathered itself enough to fight off Los Angeles and snap the losing streak.