Orlando Magic @ New Orleans Hornets

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The Orlando Magic are 4-1 since the All-Star break and they will look to continue to play well when they travel to New Orleans to take on the Hornets on Friday night. The Magic have improved to 39-19 and are currently the two seed in the Eastern Conference. Things are not going as well for the Hornets. They have lost their last two games and seven of their last 11. They are currently 30-28 and are three games behind the Portland Trail Blazers for the eighth seed in the Western Conference. With just 24 games to play, the Hornets need to start making up ground now if they plan to make the playoffs.

The Hornets have been without elite Point Guard Chris Paul for an extended period of time this season. Promising rookie Guard Marcus Thornton has also missed nine games, but has been playing at a very high level as of late.

These two teams met back on February 8th and the Hornets had a good solution to their Paul-problem then. Darren Collison. Collison scored 27 points. However, Orlando came from behind to get the win led by Vince Carter’s 48-point outburst.

The Hornets have been very good at home, posting a 19-9 record at the New Orleans Arena. The Magic are 17-13 on the road.

Tip-off from the New Orleans Arena is scheduled for 9:30 pm EST and you can watch the game locally on FSN or nationally on ESPN. As always, if you can’t watch the game, you can listen to it locally on WDBO AM 580 and in Spanish on WONQ AM 1030.

The Line: Orlando – 4.5

Starters:

Orlando

Dwight Howard
Rashard Lewis
Matt Barnes
Vince Carter
Jameer Nelson

New Orleans

Emeka Okafor
David West
Peja Stojakovic
Morris Peterson
Darren Collison

These two teams met just over two weeks ago and everyone should remember what happened – Vince Carter dropped 48 points on an incredible 19-of-27 shooting. The Magic could not stop Hornets Point Guard Darren Collison and fell behind by 17 in the third quarter before rallying for a 123-117 victory. Peja Stojakovic had 29 points and David West had 27. Dwight Howard had 25 points, 12 rebounds and 4 blocks. Neither defense could really stop the other – New Orleans shot an effective field goal percentage of 56.7% and Orlando shot an eFG of 61.4%.

Turnovers have been a large problem for the Magic this season and they plagued them when they fell behind the Hornets but the Magic have cleaned up in that department lately.

New Orleans’ offense is ranked 14th in efficiency and scores 99.8 points per game. Darren Collison torched the Magic on February 8th and should provide some similar problems for the Magic again.  In fact, the Hornets will have another weapon – rookie Guard Marcus Thornton, who missed that game, has scored 37 and 25 points in his last two games.

The Magic will have to do a much better job of defending the Hornets this time around, especially at the forward position – the Hornets’ starting forwards combined for 56 points.

Orlando’s defense is playing some of their best basketball of the season and have moved up to third in defensive efficiency, so they should do a better job of slowing the Hornets.

Obviously, it’s unlikely that Vince Carter will score 48 points again but he shouldn’t have to. Dwight Howard has been playing the best basketball of his career, at least on the offensive end. Howard has been a monster as of late and is coming off a game in which he scored 30 points on a perfect 11-of-11 shooting and grabbed 16 rebounds. He was the first player to put up numbers like that since Wilt Chamberlin in 1969. Howard has averaged 23.4 points per game in February and 28.5 points per game since the All-Star break. It looks like Howard has taken another leap in his game and it looks like he is only going to keep getting better.

Not to be overlooked is the play of Jameer Nelson and Vince Carter. Since the All-Star break, Nelson has averaged 16.3 points per game and 7.3 assists per game. Carter has also played much better. After one awful January, Carter has averaged 19.8 points per game on 51.7% shooting in February. He’s also averaging 3.6 assists per game and turning it over only 1.6 times per game.

If the guards continue this efficient play, it will be very difficult for the Hornets’ defense, which ranks 19th in efficiency and gives up 101.3 points per game to slow the Magic.

The matchup between Dwight Howard and Emeka Okafor has become less and less intriguing as time goes on but it still should be fun to watch Howard go up against a good defender.

(Andrew Melnick is Howard the Dunk’s lead blogger and a contributor at NFL Mocks Subscribe to his RSS feed, add him on Twitter to follow him daily and you can get the HTD app here).