It had been a long time since Orlando had its lineup at full strength. The first 10 games were without Rashard Lewis and then the first game after his return, bam, Jameer Nelson tears his meniscus and is lost for a little more than a month.
Nelson finally returned to the starting lineup and the team quickly responded. And from the first play of the game, when Nelson drove toward the hoop and slung a pass to Rashard Lewis in the corner for a 3-pointer and a foul, the Magic finally got to see what they look like at full strength.
That four-point play sparked a 34-22 first quarter run for Orlando. After giving up that lead, the starters re-established the Magic's dominance in the third quarter allowing them to easily coast to a 102-87 victory.
It really did look like Orlando would run away with this thing from the very beginning. Dwight Howard continued to dominate like he has since the team returned from its West Coast trip and anchor Orlando's defense.
Just look at the rebounding stats. Howard had 20 rebounds as the Magic won the battle on the boards 49-37 -- and the deficit was much higher throughout the night.
Howard has been returning to his form from last season over the past couple of games. The Magic's defense has been progressively getting better during its recent home stretch (minus the Heat game) and the performance tonight is more proof of that. After giving up their first-quarter lead, the Magic allowed just 35 points in the second half including 13 in the third quarter. That is a stat even Stan Van Gundy could be pleased with.
Orlando gave up its big first quarter lead in the second thanks to Houston's gritty and hard working bench. The Magic stopped doing what helped them build their lead. Players stopped attacking the basket and jumpers were not falling. Orlando had no players off its bench with a positive +/-. Ryan Anderson (14 points, nine rebounds) was the only one off the bench who kept the Magic floating.
Without Howard to anchor the defense, the Rockets found their holes and cut into the lead by halftime. Orlando's turnovers did not help either. The Magic continued to struggle with those, finishing with 16.
But as the starters reset to begin the second half, any chance for Houston to win went right out the door. Even with Vince Carter continuing to struggle -- 18 points on 6-of-16 shooting -- the Magic scored pretty easily. Howard had whatever he wanted inside thanks to Houston's lack of size and it opened things up.
Orlando was hardly an offensive juggernaut in scoring 102 points. The Magic shot just 45.9 percent on the evening and Howard, despite his size advantage, had 13 points on 5-of-7 shooting. Jameer Nelson too looked like he was still getting his legs under him, but his vision and court awareness made it clear there is and never was a point guard controversy in Orlando. Nelson had 15 points in almost 30 minutes of action in his second game back.
Houston could not muster up enough offense to counteract a Magic lineup finally coming back to full strength.