There was an edge to the Magic from the opening tip. A sharpness about the way they cut. A crispness to the way they passed the ball. An extra bit of focus on defensive rotations.
No one said this game mattered more. But to see the Magic bench explode with every made 3-pointer. To see the team play with nothing to lose (or at least like they did not have a game against Golden State tomorrow night), an effort that said this was their championship game.
This one did matter more. And as the reality that, yes, the Magic would defeat Dwight Howard and his Lakers in their first meeting since the tumultuous 2012 season and the trade that ripped the franchise apart, the emotion was pretty hard to hide. At least for fans, as the tweets started to come in fast and furious from a fan base in disbelief.
One win does not make everything OK. In fact, the Magic players might have been more concerned with the problems that had plagued them for three straight losses — a lack of 3-point shooting, a lack of free throw attempts and inconsistent ball movement. They fixed many of those in this focused and concerted effort for this game in getting a 113-103 win over the Lakers at Staples Center on Sunday.
Was it because of the opponent and the fact Dwight Howard was on the other side?
The team will likely keep the answer to that question in the locker room and between the player, although Jameer Nelson admitted the game did mean a bit more to him, his teammates and the fans. Fans though continue to revel. Even the NBA world, fans reveled in the irony of the hard-fighting, superstar-less Magic defeated the team that stole their star and their franchise.
Orlando will likely take from this game the kind of concerted effort it took to get this win. That crisp ball movement around the perimeter. The drives and dishes and forays into the paint that drew fouls and defenders to free up 3-point shooters. The defense that rotated to cover for each other. This is exactly how the Magic want to play and Jacque Vaughn said as much postgame.
Vaughn pointed out the big statistic for Orlando: 34 asissts. The Magic shared the ball and had the ball moving. They knew how to draw Dwight Howard in and dish it out to someone cutting on the weak side. That is how Nikola Vucevic scored many of his points and how J.J. Redick had many of his assists.
Then there were the individual efforts.
Vucevic started things off with a fantastic effort against Dwight Howard. He was focused on doing his best to push Howard out of the lane on the glass and make his life difficult in the post. Vucevic largely did that even though Howard scored 21 points and grabbed 15 rebounds (seven in the first quarter though). Those numbers do not tell the story of Vucevic's game.
Then there was Jameer Nelson. Nelson was reportedly out for the game with the tendonitis in his Achilles until about 15 minutes before tip off when it was announced that Nelson would indeed play. He looked like the 2009 version in the fourth quarter, draining a step-back 3-pointer and breaking down the Lakers defense, making a living in the paint. He scored 19 points and dished out 13 assists, one shy of his career high.
And there was Arron Afflalo scoring 30 points, hitting 11 of 18 shots, dishing out five assists and grabbing five rebounds. He was shooting in rhythm and was aggressively attacking the basket. There was Glen Davis too setting the tone by showing no fear against the Lakers' big front line and scoring 23 points and grabbing 12 rebounds (all defensive boards, helping limit Howard's impact on the offensive glass). And, of course, J.J. Redick contributed with some big shots and 14 points along with seven assists.
Of course, this game was not about the individual performances. That is not what Jacque Vaughn wants this team to be about. He wants this team to be about sharing the ball and working together and playing hard.
For all 48 minutes, every player that went to the floor did that. There was no fear about the guys in the other jerseys. There was that intense focuse on the final goal necessary to win this game.
The Magic ended up shooting 50 percent for the game and scoring 40 points in the fourth quarter. It occurred because the team built confidence on that end by sharing the ball, making shots and never relenting. Unlike previous games, the ball rarely got stuck and the magic did not get down when things got difficult.
They did get difficult at times. A young second unit could not keep pace and gave up a nine-point deficit. The Magic's defense was not perfect either, especially early. The Magic though kept fighting. And that might have surprised the Lakers.
When Orlando went to the hack-a-Howard late in the third quarter and in the fourth quarter, it seemed to add to the frustration for Los Angeles. Particularly since the Magic were breaking down the Lakers' defense so easily.
Orlando took advantage of an opponent not playing its best, and not even Kobe Bryant could will his team back into rhythm. The Magic made adjustments, employed a sound strategy since Howard shot only 9 for 21 from the foul line and executed.
The confidence grew and grew until finally the dam broke and the Magic just put on an offensive onslaught in the final 12 minutes. They left no doubt that they are a team you must plan to play hard for if you do not put them away quickly.
This is the ethos Vaughn wants to establish.
Yes, Orlando may have wanted this game a bit more because of the emotion involved. But in it, the Magic played their best game of the season and, hopefully, learned what it will take to have success this season.
For now, the catharsis is something to enjoy for Magic fans.