Lakers-Magic Preview: Master And Pupil

Over the past few weeks, as Andrew Bynum has grown as an artist and taken his game to new heights, more than a few observers, this website included, have referred to him as "Dwight Howard Lite." In Drew's gluttonous appetite for rebounds, above-the-rim finishes and capacity to unsettle shooters all over the court (not to mention his occasional hiccups at the free-throw line), one glimpses the kind of brute power that's long been the calling card of Orlando's All-Star center. Tonight, the Lakers get to see how their knock-off Dwight Howard measures up against the brand-name version, as Howard himself visits Staples Center to pick out a locker for 2012 face the defending champs.

As nifty as Drew's been since the All-Star break, he hasn't encountered an opponent as fearsome as Howard. That's because in the world of NBA big men, Howard's the unquestioned gold standard for fearsomeness. At age 25 (and doesn't it feel like he should be older?), the man's having the best season of his career. He's putting up 23 points a night on his customary 60% shooting while collecting 14 rebounds and over two blocks per game. He's the best defensive player in the world and has kept the Magic in the upper half of the East's playoff bracket despite season-long underperformance by many of his teammates. He's also gone out of his way to tamp down speculation that he'll opt out of his contract and attempt to join the Knicks or Lakers in the summer of 2012. Although Derrick Rose has captured the imagination of the media and seems likely to win MVP this year, if I had a vote and were forced to cast it right now, I'd punch my ballot for Dwight.

When the Lake Show visited Orlando a month ago, Howard uncorked a monster of a game. Shaking off early foul trouble, he scored 31 points on just 18 shots and pulled in 13 rebounds as the Magic cruised to an easy 14-point W. Neither Bynum nor Pau Gasol had the slightest bit of success trying to stop him. The Lakers, for their part, had maybe their worst offensive performance of the season, managing a putrescent 0.88 points per trip. They shot 2 of 13 on three-point attempts and 7 of 15 from the strip. That breakdown kicked off the three-game losing streak that culminated in the stankpile loss to Cleveland.

 

Since then the Magic have gone 7-4, mixing the occasional spectacular victory (their 24-point comeback against the Heat) in with a couple perplexing losses (to Sacramento and Golden State). That's sort of how they've bobbed along all year. For a while now they've been hanging a couple games back of the Celtics/Bulls/Heat troika but comfortably ahead of the Hawks and Knicks. It's pretty much assured that they'll enter the playoffs as the fourth seed in the East, which isn't bad, but considering their immense payroll (nearly as big as the Lakers') and their back-to-back runs to the conference finals, has to be considered a modest disappointment.

It's been years since Orlando was less than superb on defense, and their form on that end has held steady this season. They rank fourth in the NBA in defensive efficiency, behind only the Celtics, Bulls and Bucks. Their offense, however, has stumbled. After finishing second in offensive efficiency last year, the Magic have fallen to 11th. Their turnovers have increased steeply (I'm looking at you, Jameer Nelson), they're not shooting threes as accurately as they once did (though they're firing them up almost as often), and their free-throw shooting has gone from terrible to really terrible.

Whether or not he plays tonight, Kobe Bryant's ankle injury means the matchups in this one aren't as favorable to the Lakers as they'd otherwise be. If he plays, it's hard to imagine he'll be close to 100%. A hobbled ankle will impair his burst to the hoop, the elevation on his jumper and his ability to pursue Jason Richardson around screens. If he doesn't play, that means more minutes and a likely promotion to the starting lineup for Shannon Brown. Shannon has played pretty well lately (and acquitted himself respectably when thrust into a starting role during Kobe's injury absence last season), but he's obviously no Mamba in terms of his skill set, to say nothing of the inches he gives up to J Rich.

Orlando, by the way, has a backcourt injury of their own to deal with. J.J. Redick has missed the last couple games with an abdominal injury and could sit out tonight. If he does, we'll see plenty of Gilbert Arenas and/or Chris Duhon, two famous guys who appear to have forgotten how to play basketball well.

Which brings us back to the frontcourt, and Dwight Howard. Bynum doesn't need to outplay Dwight. He doesn't even need to play him to a draw. What he needs to do is, one, keep Dwight occupied so that he can't roam around on defense, and two, prevent Dwight from going ham on the offensive glass. Fouls will be critical. The Magic don't have a quality center behind Howard, so if Drew can tag him with a couple early whistles, Orlando will be in trouble. Conversely, if Drew's the one foul trouble, Pau will have to slide over to center, which clearly isn't ideal.

If Drew can take care of that to-do list, the Lakers can win the game at the forward positions. Pau will have the size and talent advantage over whoever's matched up with him, be it Brandon Bass or Ryan Anderson, as will Lamar Odom. Ron Artest, too, could be a factor, both by keeping Hedo Turkoglu out of a playmaking role and by occasionally taking Hedo down into the post.

Both teams might have energy issues. The Magic played just yesterday in Phoenix. Granted, it was an afternoon game and an easy win that didn't require their starters to log a full day at the office, but they've been on the road for a week and need to guard against a "getaway game" letdown. The Lakers have the opposite problem. They just returned home from a physically and emotionally taxing road trip and have to avoid feeling smug and satisfied with their three wins last week.

It'd be a shame to let all these good vibes disappear so quickly.

 

                    Magic                  

                   Lakers                 

 


League Rank


League Rank

Record...................................

42-25

8

47-20

5

Net Points Per Game..............

+5.5

6

+6.4

4

Pace.......................................

92.2

16

90.7

22

Offensive Rating.....................

108.1

11

111.6

2

Turnover Rate (Off.).............

14.2%

25

12.5%

3

FTA/FGA (Off.)....................

0.32

6

0.29

17

Free-Throw %......................

69.5

30

78.3

6

3PT FGA/FGA (Off.)............

0.32

1

0.22

15

3PT% (Off.).........................

36.8

10

35.9

14

Effective FG% (Off.)............

52.3

6

50.5

10

True Shooting% (Off.)..........

55.5

9

55.0

11

Off Rebounding Rate............

25.7%

19

29.8%

3

Defensive Rating.....................

102.2

4

104.6

8

Turnover Rate (Def.).............

13.3%

15

12.8%

23

FTA/FGA (Def.)...................

0.31

16

0.24

1

3PT FGA/FGA (Def.)............

0.22

14

0.24

21

3PT% (Def.)........................

35.0

10

33.7

4

Effective FG% (Def.)............

47.7

4

47.8

5

True Shooting% (Def.)..........

51.8

4

51.6

3

Def Rebounding Rate...........

76.8%

1

72.2%

23

Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore. Numbers are courtesy of Basketball Reference and HoopData. Be sure to check out our terrific sister site, Orlando Pinstriped Post, for more on this game.

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