The Magic were going to ride emotion as long as they could against Dwight Howard and the Lakers at Amway Center. The crowd was going to give it to them as they welcomed Howard back to his old stomping grounds for the first time as an opponent.
The Magic fans booed loudly and roundly. Howard smiled back, mocked booing at himself too and basked in everything that was the atmosphere of his first return. He then went to work, doing everything he could not do in that first game.
There were still moments of revelry though. Plenty of them.
These are the moments Magic fans will hold on to as the Lakers continue their fight for the Playoffs and the Magic fade closer to counting the ping pong balls as the goal for their season.
There was Jameer Nelson shooting a floater over Dwight Howard to end the first half and bring Orlando within four points. There was Tobias Harris rising high and blocking Howard's layup from behind to ignite a fast break that ended with Arron Afflalo making a layup to give Orlando a 57-56 third-quarter lead.
That might have been the end of the high points on this night. The Lakers defense was difficult to crack with the Magic settling for jumpers for much of the night and keeping an eye on No. 12 patrolling the paint. The Lakers broke free after the Magic took that momentary lead and went on a 14-3 run to take a double digit lead and cruise uncomfortably at times to a 106-97 win at Amway Center on Tuesday.
The Lakers never quite pulled away from the Magic. The lead went out to as much as 16 points and Orlando kept fighting and fighting. There was not a moment the team would go out with a whimper. There was no quit. There just were not enough made shots to win.
Orlando shot 39.8 percent from the floor and committed 14 turnovers for 17 Los Angeles points. It seemed when the Magic were about climb over the hill and take the lead or get back into the game, the Lakers would follow with a big shot from Jodie Meeks or Metta World Peace or Antawn Jamison.
The Magic could rarely answer.
Orlando was finding it difficult to create good shots. Los Angeles was closing off driving lanes and closing out on shooters. Dwight Howard was looking close to a defensive player of the year with his presence in the paint at times, swatting floaters on a few occasions and making players like Jameer Nelson and Arron Afflalo kick out instead of finishing at the rim.
Then the Magic missed open shots to make matters worse. They would fall just enough to keep Orlando in the game, but not when things counted.
And then Dwight Howard made things count at the free throw line. In December, Jacque Vaughn opted to intentionally foul Howard on numerous occasions and send him to the line hoping his 48 percent free throw shooting would keep Orlando in the game. Howard went to the line an NBA record-tying (his own record-tying) 39 times and made 25 — 64.1 percent.
While the fouling kept the Lakers off balance and kept Kobe Bryant from finding a rhythm (he scored only 11 points), Howard made the Magic pay for the strategy. He hit a nice rhythm on the line in the second half and it only expanded Los Angeles' lead as Orlando tried desperately to come back.
In the end, the emotion of the night had perhaps the opposite effect it needed for this young Orlando team. Early on, it gave the Magic energy and helped spur them on. But as the game slowed down and execution was needed, Orlando needed to make plays. And at times it seemed the Magic were trying too hard to do so.
That is what happens when a team is not playing for much else than pride and gets a monumental game in front of them like this. The players may not admit it, but they felt the pressure from the crowd to perform at a high level. The experience was good for this young team, but they were not quite ready for it.
Not with shots not falling.
And so even a great effort was not enough. Jameer Nelson had 21 points and seven assists but shot 1 of 9 from beyond the arc and 9 of 19 from the floor. Arron Afflalo had 17 points, but hit on only 6 of his 18 shots. Tobias Harris also had 17 points and 15 rebounds, but was 7 for 17.
Good efforts. Just not enough. Not without the ability to make shots on a consistent basis.
It was not the release Magic fans wants. Several wanted this win more than anything for some type of revenge against Howard. They did not get that.
Maybe they got a step closer to forgivenes. Maybe it only piqued anger more. Maybe none of that will matter until the Magic get back to a championship level.
In the end, this was just another game and another chance to learn. The Magic may have gotten that and may now be able to continue moving forward with the growth and development necessary to put Dwight Howard behind them.