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Orlando Magic breaks its own spell

Lakers will face an Orlando team that is a far cry from the one they met and beat in the Finals. Others lag as Dwight Howard struggles.

January 18, 2010|By Mike Bresnahan

Hey, wow, Orlando's in town . . . sort of.

The sequence of events tonight will show a charter bus dropping off a bunch of tall guys at what will eventually be a full house at Staples Center, marking the first time the Lakers and Magic have played since the NBA Finals in June.

But there's something strange about this Orlando team, loser of six of its last eight games, including a 102-87 loss Friday against a horribly depleted Portland team that was without Brandon Roy, Greg Oden and a host of other regulars.

The Magic of last season has turned into a mystery this season.

Three-point ace Rashard Lewis has yet to discover his stroke after missing the season's first 10 games because of a suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs.

Dwight Howard's numbers are down across the board, his 16.8 points, 13.1 rebounds and 2.5 blocked shots surprisingly short of the 20.6 points, 13.8 rebounds and 2.9 blocked shots he averaged last season.

Newcomer Vince Carter is fighting a minor shoulder separation and a major shooting slump in which he has made only 21% of his attempts the last six games he's played.

Orlando (26-14) started off 17-4 but has since slipped to fourth in the Eastern Conference. Is it any wonder that 71% of respondents to an Orlando Sentinel poll said they were "extremely concerned" about the Magic's slump? (Another 24% said "moderately concerned," leaving only 5% in the "not concerned" pile.)

Taking it a step further, a Sentinel story headline asked the pointed question "Where's Superman?" in reference to Howard's limited game on offense.

Then there was this quote from forward Matt Barnes after the Magic was drubbed by Portland.

"It's like we are going through the motions," he said. "Just because you went to the Finals last year, you can't go out on the floor and expect teams to lay down. We got no heart. I've played on teams that used to love to punk the good teams in the league. We loved to do that."

The Lakers, meanwhile, were loving life seven months ago after beating the Magic in five games. Their follow-up season has gone much more smoothly than Orlando's, though they are still trying to figure out a few things before embarking on an eight-game trip that starts Thursday in Cleveland.

Their scoring in a 40-point blowout of the Clippers was their idea of a perfect statistical blend -- 30 points from Kobe Bryant and 20 each from Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol.

Bynum didn't even seem to mind the return of Gasol from a six-game absence because of a strained hamstring. Bynum took 13 shots, second-highest on the team, and made eight of them.

It was a sign that the Lakers' 7-footers could actually play together, but Coach Phil Jackson, as always, wasn't entirely complimentary when asked about Bynum.

It was more of a big-picture question about the 22-year-old center, whether his 15.8 points and 8.4 rebounds a game had made Jackson a satisfied man.

"No," he said. "I'm happy with what he's accomplished, but I'm not satisfied. I don't think he is either. That's the way you have to look at it. Defensive, rebounding, shot blocking . . . that's where the real strength of the basketball is, in stopping people. It's always fun to score. But that next step is the defensive attitude and defensive contesting and defensive ability to read and react."

Bynum will have a chance to prove himself against Howard, who must still be recognized despite persistent foul trouble and double-teams that have taken a whack at his stats this season, not to mention some embarrassing "Hack-a-Howard" moments in which teams have purposely fouled him to take advantage of his 60.1% free-throw shooting.

Bynum slipped out of practice without talking to reporters, but Gasol, who will also get some time on Howard, talked about tonight's strategy.

"We'll try to keep a body on him at all times," he said. "We don't want him to feel that he has a huge advantage strength-wise. Obviously, he's a stronger guy and he tries to get deep in the lane and get good position, so you have to be extremely physical with him."

Gasol, for one, wasn't buying that Orlando was lagging.

"We know the quality of their players," he said. "Meeting them in the Finals last year is an incentive."

Keep scoring?

Bryant has 24,970 points, 30 shy of 25,000 in his NBA career.

He's played 988 games, 36,077 minutes and taken 19,073 shots . . . and that's just the regular season.

"I've been very fortunate not to have to deal with serious injuries and having careers cut short and things like that," he said. "It's a testament to that."

Will he stick around long enough to try to catch all-time leader Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (38,387 points)?

"I don't know how long I'll play," Bryant said open-endingly.


A couple of quotes of the day from Lakers practice . . .

Bryant on his slowly subsiding back spasms: "It's just stiff. Not painful. I'm about to get my George Jefferson stroll [back]."

Gasol on the importance of playing well on Martin Luther King Jr. Day: "We're a little shaky on the holidays."

Times correspondent Mark Medina contributed to this report.

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