You could see the storm clouds gathering over Amway Center as Orlando prepared to take on Los Angeles. No, the Lakers don’t come to town until Sunday. But another test looms. And another chance to worry about the Magic’s future and rush to conclusions.
For one night at least, against Los Angeles’ other team, things looked right with the Magic. Things looked very right.
For the first time in what seems like a long time, the sprinting, shooting, powerful Magic returned to the parquet floor at Amway Center. Dwight Howard was dominant inside, getting baskets and the rim and forcing his way to the free throw line. It led to openings along the perimeter, driving lanes — yes, driving lanes — and eventually open jumpers. The defense cut off penetration, kept Blake Griffin from finding open space and got out on the break.
This looked more like the team that won nine straight games in early January, at least in the second half. Orlando may have silenced some feelings of dread in a 101-85 win over the Los Angeles Clippers at Amway Center on Tuesday.
Things could not have started worse offensively for Orlando. The team made its first 3-pointer and then missed its next seven, at least. Shots were not falling, but Orlando’s offense was not stagnating as always.
That might be because they were still getting decent looks and just missing them. But unlike previous outings where that happened, the Magic stuck to their defensive principles and stopped the Clippers from getting to the basket or out on the break. The defensive rotations were very crisp. Orlando was shooting less than 40 percent in the first half, but Los Angeles was not much better in taking a 46-42 lead at the half.
A slow start to the second half offensively was offset by the aggression the Magic displayed in attacking and forcing the Clippers to foul. Eventually things opened up.
Tonight started and ended with Dwight Howard for sure. His fifth 20/20 game was marked by absolute dominance on the glass and steady play around the rim. His presence deterred Blake Griffin (a career-low 10 points to go with 12 rebounds) and kept him under wraps for the entire game. Howard was solid. And eventually it freed Jameer Nelson, Gilbert Arenas and company to make the defense really work.
Nelson got things going with 17 points in the game, many in the third quarter including two 3-pointers. Orlando took control in that period. And never looked back.
There were some points of shakiness. Nelson was helping too far off of Baron Davis, allowing him to answer Orlando’s 3-pointers with some of his own. Davis had a game-high 25 points. But for the mostpart, once the 3-pointers started falling it snowballed and you could feel the confidence building on both ends of the floor.
The Magic outscored the Clippers 35-20 in the final quarter, overwhelming the young Clippers squad. Orlando finished 10 for 30 from beyond the arc and shot 43.2 percent. Hardly great offensive numbers. Seventeen offensive rebounds sure helps too. The Magic hit 10 3-pointers for the eighth time since the winning streak ended. For a team that relies on the 3-pointer, eight in 16 games with 10 3-pointers is not good enough.
Tonight it was. The question is will things carry over?
For now, it is time to revel in a very solid performance. The Clippers posted only a 91.4 offensive rating and shot 39.2 percent. They could not find an offensive rhythm and watched the Magic connect on shots and find their shooting stroke first.
Gilbert Arenas woke up partially from whatever funk he was in, playing Nelson’s spot in the fourth quarter as Orlando pulled away and scoring nine points to go with five assists. JJ Redick hit two of his three shots from long range to get to 12 points.
One good game on offense and defense though does not mean this team is back to where it needs to be. There was plenty left to be wanting. This game lacked rhythm for most of the night and it took a long time for Orlando to get its offense going and pull away. The fast break was a big part of that as Orlando was able to push the pace in the fourth quarter.
For the first time in a while, the Magic were able to find their bearings in time to get the easy victory. Will they do it tomorrow?
Duplicating the success is the next step. For one night, at least, the Magic seemed to be back on their game.