It seems Howard is always fighting a mountain of criticism and fighting for attention in the crowded sphere of the NBA. That might be what is fueling some of his desire to leave. It might be what fueled him to show up Andrew Bynum and the Lakers on Friday.
Pushing aside any talk of rumors, Howard came out and took control of the game early. He drew two quick fouls on Bynum, the player most rumored in a trade for Howard, and proceeded to dominate most of the rest of the game.
Orlando pushed the lead to double digits and suffocated a Los Angeles team that looked a little tired after a game in Miami the night before and still struggling to find its rhythm offensively. The Lakers scored just 10 points in the first quarter and were playing catch up the entire game. Not even Kobe Bryant could will the Lakers back into it.
Los Angeles got it to within eight points in the fourth quarter, but Orlando, as it had all night, put together a run to extend the lead. These final daggers came from Jameer Nelson making a technical foul free throw, Jason Richardson taking the ensuing inbounds pass on a backdoor cut dunk and, finally, Ryan Anderson draining a 3-pointer from the corner off of an incredibly tight dime from Nelson. The lead was 14 again.
There was not going to be another threat from Los Angeles this night, even with Kobe Bryant giving Orlando's defense fits. The Magic took the win 92-80 at Amway Center on Friday.
Bryant was about the only player on the Lakers who could get much going offensively. Bryant was brilliant on that end, scoring 30 points on 11-for-22 shooting. He was doubled most of the game and recorded eight assists too. There was no answer for him. Orlando was sending two defenders his way throughout the game, daring Los Angeles to beat Orlando on ball rotations to the weak side and 3-point shooting. The Magic read the scouting report as the Lakers are not a great 3-point shooting team.
Los Angeles hit on 6 of 20 3-point attempts for the game. As a team, Los Angeles hit 38.2 percent of its shots. The percentage was much worse in the first half as the ball stagnated and the team tried to play one on one to score its points. It was a difficult offense to watch.
And the Magic took advantage, hitting shots with good passing out of the post from Dwight Howard and strong shooting from Ryan Anderson and J.J. Redick. Eventually, the Magic were able to penetrate and take advantage of a slow-footed defense.
Howard's game was just stunningly immaculate. He set the tone with some strong moves in the post to get to the line. He then further set the tone with a dominating defensive performance and an even better performance on the glass. Howard scored 21 points and grabbed 23 rebounds, marking his fifth 20/20 performance in 15 games this season. Let that sink in a bit.
All five starters reached double figures for Orlando. No player provided a bigger lift (outside Howard, of course) than Jameer Nelson.
Nelson put aside some doubt with 17 points and nine assists. He recovered from his 2-for-16 performance Wednesday by shooting 6 for 12 from the floor Friday. He drove into the paint looking to score. That aggression caused the defense to collapse on him and he was finding the right outlet for passes. It was a very strong game from Nelson, and the kind of performance Orlando has come to expect from the co-captain (and the kind of performance he has not delivered so far this season).
Orlando hit a lot of timely shots, but the lead was built and maintained with defense.
For the most part, the Magic played a pretty strong defensive game. Orlando chased Los Angeles off the 3-point line consistently and forced tougher mid-range jumpers. Kobe Bryant had to fight for his 30 points as Orlando sent double teams his way about every time. Howard had a lock down on the paint.
The defensive rotations were about as good as they had been all year, which worked to prevent drives into the lane and enabled the team to get out and defend the 3-point line quickly. Even if it created a brief mismatch, Orlando scrambled to recover about as well as they have all year.
Taking this game with the San Antonio and Charlotte games and the end of the New York game, and it is starting to feel like Orlando is piecing its defense back together.
As long as the ball is moving, like it was at the beginning of the game when the Magic built their lead, this team is difficult to beat.
Los Angeles found that out the hard way as Howard forced Los Angeles to change its defensive strategy on him -- going from single coverage to double teaming back to single coverage -- and then the shooters forced Los Angeles to change it again.