Dwight Howard had finally found his groove after battling foul trouble all game long. He was getting clean looks in the post and working around his defender and double teams for easy shots (or getting to the line. He was getting into a groovfe defensively, grabbing every rebound in sight, blocking shots and being the best defensive player of the year.
It was in this stretch that Orlando erased what was a nine-point lead and began exchanging small deficits as Orlando and Charlotte looked headed to the two teams’ first close game of this first round series.
Then the bump, the whistle and the jubilant shout of a crowd knowing their opponent’s best player had just fouled out.
This seemed to be the Bobcats chance. A raucous crowd witnessing a franchise’s first home playoff game and a chance to upset a heavily favored Magic and get back into the series.
Jameer Nelson had other ideas.
The player Howard affectionately calls a “crib midget” had his way once again with Charlotte’s defense, exploiting one of the few weaknesses the team has defensively. Nelson has found his rhythm and is taking advantage of Raymond Felton at every opportunity. He scored 32 points — 19 in the first quarter — including a tough one-handed runner in the lane with 1:30 left to give Orlando a three-point lead.
The Magic turned to Nelson and Vince Carter down the stretch and eked out a 90-86 win in Charlotte on Saturday for a 3-0 series lead. No team in NBA history has erased a 3-0 deficit.
Nelson has been simply masterful this series, copying the performance he had in Game One almost. He scored 19 points in the first quarter as seemingly the only player who could get anything going offensively early on. More than that, he was a pest defensively with four steals.
But the story of this game will inevitably be Dwight Howard’s foul troubles. He picked up two fouls quickly and picked up his third equally fast in the beginning of the second quarter. He did not do himself any favors either as he had four entering the fourth.
A lot of them were silly too and not the kind he should be getting — challenging the ball going to the rim. But when Howard finally found his rhythm early in the fourth quarter it was like everything awoke for Orlando and began to click. It feels like Howard has dominated games, when he has been able to stay out of foul trouble.
Tonight he played only 26 minutes, the lowest he has played this series and the lowest amount he has played since fouling out in San Antonio in early April. He simply could not stay on the floor.
But in his absence, Marcin Gortat filled in admirably as the $34 million insurance plan started paying off. He scored five points and grabbed eight rebounds and did his best to protect the paint with Howard out of there.
Obviously things were different with Gortat in the game rather than Howard. Charlotte was able to attack the paint much more effectively than the team could in Game Two. The Bobcats got in the paint and got there often, allowing them to have by far their best offensive game of the series.
Orlando did not help its cause by coughing the ball up so much and finding itself struggling to keep up at times with an inspired and energized Charlotte team. The Magic had 19 turnovers in the game and struggled to force the Bobcats into many turnovers themselves.
Charlotte has struggled with turnovers throughout this series, but found the right balance today. The Bobcats had their series low with 14 turnovers today. But more interestingly, they looked to push the pace and pressure the Magic as they had not before in the series.
Charlotte got turnovers and turned it into instant offense, running and attacking off every miscue. The Bobcats extended the lead out to five late in the first half simply because the team could force turnovers at half court and get out and run on numerous occasions.
The Bobcats were clearly very inspired by the home crowd and played much looser than they did in Orlando. Stephen Jackson scored 19 points and got the help he so desperately needed in Games One and Two. Gerald Wallace and Raymond Felton each had 13 points. And Larry Hughes added 14 off the bench, including 10 in the first half.
Orlando’s bench could not match. The Magic had just 14 points off the bench and relied almost entirely on the starters to provide the scoring punch.
Nelson did his part. Rashard Lewis, when he was also not in foul trouble, did his part too. He did a good job driving in off the 3-point line and hitting on his mid-range jumpers in scoring 14 points.
Tonight was a night where Orlando’s offense really struggled. Charlotte was ready to go and fed off the energy the crowd and the return home provided.
But the Magic fought hard and hung around. When given the chance to win the game, Orlando had the players to execute in the final stretch and take the win.
Rest assured though, Orlando will not survive many more games like these when Howard is a virtual non-factor. He has to find a way to avoid the frustrating fouls that get him into big trouble. The Magic should now have the confidence to win without Howard, but that will not be how games will work later in the postseason.
Stephen Jackson missed a 3-pointer that would have given Charlotte a 3-point lead after coming around free on a curl screen to the top of the key. Yes, sometimes the breaks do not go your way, but that was perhaps not what the Bobcats needed in that situation. Orlando made the plays down the stretch and now sit one win away from the second round.