Stan Van Gundy says there are no such things as "moral victories." And he is right. The Magic lost to the Lakers. They lost a game they easily could have won and lost it in a way that is not entirely encouraging. A "moral victory" it was not.
But despite the struggles Orlando had throughout the evening, there were plenty of bright spots and a solid enough effort for a lot of people -- including Doug Collins on the TNT broadcast -- to say there is light at the end of the tunnel. The Magic appear to be nearing the end of this mid-season malaise.
It certainly may not appear that way after Los Angeles responded to a 20-2 Orlando run with a 22-1 run of its own in the second half to turn a nine-point deficit into a 98-92 victory.
There was much of the same inconsistency that the Magic have shown in the most recent stretch of games, but it did feel a lot different. The team did not lie down like it did in Portland on Friday night and continued to fight even with 3-point shots not falling.
The first half was the Dwight Howard show as he single-handedly (really) kept the Magic in the game. Howard had 18 points and hit nine of 12 field goals, including a couple jumpers. He displayed a wide variety of post moves and got Andrew Bynum in foul trouble early. He was a nightmare for the Lakers' defense and became the offensive force everybody in the NBA knows he will one day become.
More importantly, Orlando realized this and kept feeding him the ball. The Lakers were using late double teams to try and force him to pass it back out, but largely allowed Bynum or Pau Gasol to defend him one on one. Howard took advantage of whatever defense he saw in any case.
Even with the Magic playing somewhat flat-footed defense in the first half, Howard's effort was enough to keep them within striking distance of the lead.
Then Orlando's defense and energy picked up on both ends. The Magic played their finest quarter in quite a while in holding the Lakers to 11 points in the third quarter. It helped erase what was once a 13-point deficit and build a nine-point lead for Orlando.
The leaders this time were Jameer Nelson and Rashard Lewis. Nelson took advantage of the Lakers' weakness at point guard and got into the lane for mid-range shots or kicked it out to Lewis and the perimeter shooters. Lewis was actually doing much of the same. Using some nice drives after being chased off the 3-point line to set up his jumper. This is the period when the Magic made their big run and started hitting shots.
The effort did not wane in the fourth quarter, but the shots started to dry up as the Lakers tightened their defense. Orlando was induced into some quick shots that for the most part did not go in. This allowed Los Angeles to get out on the break and use the team's great passing ability (and the team does have a ton of good passers) to cut into the lead. From there, momentum was clearly on the Lakers' side and the Magic were scratching to get back.
At least this time, they scratched to the end. A couple of Vince Carter desperation 3-pointers made it a six-point margin and made Los Angeles have to make some late free throws.
First, the positives: Dwight Howard was, as mentioned above absolutely fantastic. Nelson also had a great game scoring 13 points and dishing out eight assists. He did a real good job managing the game as Orlando tried to get back into it in the fourth quarter. This was a game where you got the feeling if the Magic could hit their shots (they finished shooting 43.9 percent from the floor and 11 of 33 from the 3-point line), this would easily have been their game to win.
The defense was very active and the best it has been in a long while. Los Angeles shot 42.7 percent from the floor and Kobe Bryant scored only 11 points on 4-of-19 shooting. Injury or no injury for Bryant, that is a very good job defensively. Every shot he took was contested.
But the negatives were also plenty and much of the same as they have been lately.
Orlando tended to settle for 3-pointers as they started falling in the second half. Thirty-three is a lot of 3-pointers and to only make 11, is not a positive sign. This also led to, perhaps, the worst part of the second half: the ignoring of Dwight Howard.
As good as Howard was in the first half, he was non-existent in the second half. After scoring 18 points and taking 12 shots in the first half, he finished with 24 points and only 14 shots total in the game. The Lakers did a good job being more physical with him and pushing him off his spot.
But he went long stretches without touching the ball as the Magic fired away and looked to get their perimeter players going. He needs the ball for Orlando to win and now that he is comfortable with his jumper, he is going to be able to contribute more offensively.
The Magic also got off to a very slow start. They were down 13 in the first half at one point and down for the entire first half. They were flat footed while guarding their man and allowed a ton of dribble penetration. This opened up a lot of shots on the outside.
It is how a guy like Shannon Brown scored 22 points (the most in the game). Brown played extraordinarily well. Orlando gave him jumpers and he hit them. But he also scored a lot off of Kobe's penetration and the defense collapsing around Gasol. It certainly could have been stopped.
Everything still appears to be a work in progress and it sucks losing this game. It was a winnable game (Orlando had a second half lead, remember) and it is not good to let it slip out of the team's fingers like it did. But in the course of the season, it looks like some things were righted and improved in this game. But we probably won't know for sure until Wednesday's matchup with Indiana though.