Of course, Howard and his teammates still had to hold up their end of the bargain. And do it against the two-time defending champions.
Howard did that and more in the second half Sunday. He hit his first eight shots in the second half and missed just three total, forcing Los Angeles to double team him and open things up for his teammates... and also himself. No double team was going to stop Howard this afternoon as he scored 31 points and grabbed 13 rebounds (six offensive) in a 89-75 victory over the Lakers.
A victory that reminded everyone just how good Orlando can be when it focuses on defense, patience on offense and, of course, getting Dwight Howard involved on offense.
Getting Howard the ball was certainly the focus all game. The team did a great job moving the ball and keeping the Lakers defense on the move to keep them from shading Howard and intercepting passes. Sure, early on Andrew Bynum's length gave Howard some issues and he seemed a little impatient in his post moves -- picking up two fouls late in the first quarter and his third shortly after returning to the floor in the second.
But the second half was one of the best offensive displays of his career.
He showed the variety of moves he has developed, working not through Bynum but around him, out-finessing the big man opposite him. Not only that, he was willing to outwork a much bigger Lakers team to just about every rebound. He had one offensive rebound where he simply beat Pau Gasol across the lane and dunked the ball over him, drawing a foul, as it fell off the rim. Similarly, he threw down a thunderous jam at the third quarter buzzer off a wild Gilbert Arenas pass/jumper (with his feet both squarely out of bounds, but the referees did not see it).
Howard was the catalyst all game. Los Angeles was perfectly willing to continue playing him in single coverage and he did a good job taking advantage of it.
Orlando, though, won this game not only on Howard's offensive shoulders, but also on its defensive shoulders. The Magic perhaps played its best defensive performance in nearly a month. And statistically, they played their best defensive game since a 40-point win over the Raptors in January (there have been a few that have been close, including Tuesday's win over the Clippers).
But against this quality of a team, the team's defense was outstanding, leaving even Stan Van Gundy little to complain about.
Orlando posted an 88.2 defensive efficiency and held the Lakers to 39.3 percent shooting and a lowly 2 for 16 from beyond the arc. Even when the team struggled to collect rebounds in the first quarter, the rotations were crisp and Howard's presence helped keep the Lakers out of the post, where they were really most effective. Pau Gasol had 11 points on 5-for-12 shooting. Andrew Bynum had a solid 17 points on 8-for-15 shooting.
Superb defense on Kobe Bryant and the other perimeter options though kept the Lakers from finding a good offensive rhythm. Bryant scored 17 points, but needed 18 shots to get there. Phil Jackson pointed it out during the game, the Magic won all four quarters and held the Lakers to 34 points in the second half.
It was critical having Brandon Bass back today against the Gasol/Bynum/Lamar Odom front line. Ryan Anderson was working hard, but simply could not beat either Bynum or Gasol to the offensive glass in the first quarter. He played only 18 minutes today, giving way to Bass to make his return. It was clear the injury was still limiting Bass' lift and jumper, but he played with a lot of energy and was able to outmuscle the Lakers' front line better.
Earl Clark provided a real spark in the second quarter too with Howard out of the game in foul trouble. Clark finished with six points and four rebounds in just under 10 minutes. His energy helped the Magic survive that spell late in the second quarter without Howard.
There was a lot of energy in today's game on both ends of the ball and little to dislike from the Magic's end.
Orlando even survived a poor shooting day from beyond the arc, going 7 for 23, because the team was more patient on offense and taking better looks from beyond the arc. It is no wonder since the team shot 48.7 percent from the floor -- and 56.6 percent on two-point field goals. The Magic showed just how good they can be, as Stan Van Gundy noted.
But really this game was won on Dwight Howard. And this is how the Magic should try to win most of their games, by riding their superstar straight to the finish.