Here’s something I didn’t think I’d write this season: The Eastern Conference leading Orlando Magic are in town. Literally from worst (21-61 last season) to first. (On a side note — the Eastern Conference may have the NBA champs but my feelings about it from the past couple of seasons have not changed: It remains a sorry excuse for a conference. There is no depth there. If the season ended right now, the Knicks would be the three seed with a 9-10 record, something they would earn by winning their division.)
The Lakers and Magic met once before this season, back on Nov. 12, but that is a game Laker fans might like to forget. Well, not the first quarter — LA came out running, shot 64% from the floor and led 37-21 at the end of the first quarter and by 18 points early in the second.
Then things got ugly, as ugly as they have all season. Steve Francis showed that a penetrating point guard can eat the Lakers alive, and he had 32 points and 9 assists when the night was over. Everyone seemed happy to see Grant Hill back, so the Lakers let him help himself to 27 points and 12 rebounds (but he may not play tonight due to sore shins).
Then there were these nuggets: Orlando’s bench outscored the Lakers’ 54-13 (mostly from Hedo Turkoglu, 23, and Pat Garrity, 21); Orlando dominated on the boards, 50-32; and fast break points went to Orlando 27-15.
You can expect to see a lot of fast break points in this game — Orlando takes 47% of its shots come in the first 10 seconds of the 24 second clock (the Lakers are at 37%).
This is also a game — like last night against the Clippers — where Kobe and Chucky Atkins can shine (Kobe did shine against the Clippers with 37, and Atkins had a key three to seal the win). Orlando is weakest defensively against the point (17.6 oPER) and the two (16.7 oPER). That was reflected in the last game between these two — Kobe had 41 points (shooting a respectable 45.2% from the field) with 16 points in the fourth. Chucky Atkins had 21 points, including three of nine from three point range.
There are two key factors for the Lakers tonight. One, play good defense, particularly at the point against Francis. They need to play defense like they did last night — holding the Clippers to 37.1% shooting from the field, and just 3 or 13 from three-point land — and not like they did last time they played the Magic, giving up 122 points. Second, they need to get better bench play — this is the second game of a back to back and they are facing a team that would like to run them out of the building. They got poor bench play against the Clippers, just 13 points (Jumaine Jones did add nine defensive rebounds in his 25 minutes). If the Lakers get tired because the starters have to play too many minutes, the fourth quarter tonight could look a lot like the last game these two played.
By the way, in the four other back-to-backs the Lakers have played this season, they are 1-3 in the second game.