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Lakers 75, Magic 89: Charge of the Dwight Brigade


Thank God for that victory in Boston. Without it, we'd have to discuss today's Laker defeat, a 75 to 89 pratfall in Orlando, in the context of the champs' season-long inability to beat their fellow NBA heavyweights. Mercifully, the win over the Celtics killed off that narrative, allowing us to put this afternoon's events in a rational and healthy perspective. There are days when your shots just... don't... fall. This was one of those days. They don't mean terribly much in the big scheme of things, except that you'd really prefer to avoid shooting this heinously too often in the future, which is something we already knew.

Let's get the ugly facts out on the table. The Lakers today scraped together just 75 points, their lowest total of the season. Adjusted for pace, that works out to 0.88 points per possession, also their lowest of the season. They missed eight of 15 free throws for a 47% mark from the stripe. This, too, was their lowest of the season. And they connected on only two of 16 three-point attempts. Was their resulting 12.5% accuracy from behind the arc their lowest of the season? Oh you know it, brother! (*high fives*)

The Laker D performed acceptably enough, forcing 17 turnovers and holding the Magic to 1.06 points per trip. But when your offense is completely moribund, what does it matter? After a foul-plagued first half, Dwight Howard went ham in the second and finished with 31 points on 18 shots (including free-throw possessions). He had not much trouble scoring against Andrew Bynum and none at all against Pau Gasol. Along with some quietly efficient contributions from frontcourt mates Ryan Anderson, Hedo Turkoglu and Earl Clark, Dwight's huge day supplied pretty much all the offense Orlando would need to outpace a thoroughly neutered Laker attack.

In retrospect, what's striking isn't that the Lakers lost by double digits, but that they kept it close as long as they did. With a few minutes left in the second period, the contest was tied at 41. Kobe Bryant had made four straight buckets, and when Howard left the game with his third foul, an opportunity presented itself to put together a little run before halftime. But with Dwight on the bench, the Lakers went scoreless in their last six possessions and entered the break down four. This stretch was emblematic of the entire day: offensive sequences were ending in pretty decent looks, but guys couldn't entice the ball to drop through the net. At intermission, Kobe, Drew and Lamar Odom had combined for 32 points on 25 shots, but the rest of the squad was a crashingly awful 4 for 22.

After the break, the Orlando attack revved itself up. Dwight worked a nice inside-outside game with Anderson, Turk and Jameer Nelson, and soon the lead was pushed up to nine. With about four minutes left, the Lakers enjoyed their only burst of hot outside shooting when Fish and Artest dropped in some perimeter J's to pull back within three. But Dwight hit a couple more shots at the end of the period - one of which shouldn't have counted, in that it came off an assist from Gilbert Arenas while he was out of bounds - and then hit two more at the beginning of the fourth to establish a double-digit cushion. After that, the Lakers never really threatened.

Phil Jackson elected against doubling Howard, which is probably the right strategy even though it didn't produce a good result today. Dwight just had a really nice touch going around the basket, such that the Lakers' only hope of stopping him was to either force him into a turnover before he could get a shot up or get him off the court with foul trouble. A few years ago, his three first-half fouls would've thrown his game askew. Today he played in control in the second half, kept himself on the court and powered his team to the W. That's just the kind of development we like to see from the guy the Lakers will be acquiring in the summer of 2012.

A less obvious key to Orlando's victory is how they controlled their defensive glass after the first quarter. In the first period, nine of the Lakers' 21 points came off second-chance opportunities generated by Andrew Bynum, who had five offensive boards in the quarter. Drew would have only one more offensive rebound the rest of the game, and the Lakers wouldn't score additional second-chance points until there were 47 seconds left in garbage time. That's a run of over 38 minutes during which the Magic pitched a shutout on second-chance points. A lot of credit here goes to guys not named Dwight Howard. Brandon Bass pulled in eight defensive rebounds in 30 minutes. Jason Richardson collected six from the shooting-guard position. Gilbert Arenas and J.J. Redick combined for seven.

But as in their loss to the Spurs back on February 3rd, the Lakers' official cause of death was their acute inability to hit an outside shot. When you shoot 2 for 16 from three-point distance, your winning percentage is guaranteed to be awfully damn close to zero. Derek Fisher (2 for 7) and Ron Artest (2 for 6) are both stuck in shooting slumps at the moment. I do wonder, though, whether it's still appropriate to say these are "slumps," since those guys have shot this way basically all year.

The champs are now 38-17 and head to Charlotte to face the Bobcats tomorrow night. Then it's Cleveland on Wednesday, and then All-Star weekend. Heading into the break, I think it'd be lovely if the Lakers had a cool 40 wins under their belt, don't you?











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