Following the pattern that had been set by the two other teams regarded as their primary rivals for an NBA championship (the Cavs and Lakers) in their first-round openers, the Orlando Magic jumped out to a commanding lead and then held on down the stretch to defeat a tenacious lower seed--in this case the Charlotte Bobcats, who were playing in their first playoff game in franchise history.
• Dwight Howard's monstrous blocks and stupid fouls tell the tale of two halves. No player in recent memory has dominated the beginning of a playoff series the way Howard did as he patrolled and controlled the paint in the first half. From his mammoth stuff at the summit of 6-11 center Theo Ratliff's hard baseline dunk attempt 71 seconds into the game, to his swat of Larry Hughes' layup with less than two minutes to play in the half, Howard amassed eight blocks against a Bobcats team that had the greatest percentage of its field goal attempts blocked during the regular season. But Howard also allowed himself to be baited into two stupid fouls that involved arm-tangling and shoving well away from the action. The second skirmish led to his fourth foul, whistled as the Magic were getting back on defense with eigth minutes to play in the third period -- and that nearly swung the game in Charlotte's favor. With Howard forced to sit, the Bobcats immediately went on an 8-0 run to cut a 20-point lead to 12. Howard then played tentatively when he returned, and the Magic's margin was eventually whittled to five with little more than three minutes to play. (A crucial sixth foul could and should have been called when he swatted Gerald Wallace in the head going for a rebound.) In all, Superman finished with nine blocks -- but none in the game's final 22 minutes. Meanwhile, backup center Marcin Gortat didn't exactly earn his $5.8 million salary in 20 minutes on the floor (2 points, 5 rebounds, zero blocks).
• Jameer Nelson caught Raymond Felton and the Bobcats flat-footed. The Magic point guard exploded for 24 points in the first half on 10-of-12 shooting. His assortment of shots included 4-of-6 from three-point territory, and also three relatively easy layups going to his preferred right hand. "We didn't get control of their point guard," Bobcats coach Larry Brown lamented in a sideline interview at the end of the first period, when Nelson already had 14 points, on his way to a game-high 32.
• Stephen Jackson was gritty... Just before the end of the first half, Jackson suffered a hyperextended left knee when Wallace dove into it going after a loose ball. Helped off the court by his teammates at halftime, Captain Jack nevertheless returned to start the second half and played straight through to the 9-minute mark of the fourth quarter before sitting the rest of the game. He finished with 18 points (6 of 18 shooting) and five turnovers. It remains to be seen how much the joint will swell and tighten before Game 2 on Wednesday.
• ... but Gerald Wallace was Charlotte's star. The best Bobcat on the floor was Wallace, who had struggled against Orlando in the regular season but led the Charlotte comeback on Sunday, scoring 25 points and grabbing 17 rebounds -- 10 more boards than Howard or any other Magic player. He also got to the line 13 times and, unlike every other member of the Bobcats starting lineup, he never had his shot blocked.
• Lewis and Pietrus cover for Vinsanity. How does Orlando win a game in which Howard and Vince Carter combine for just 17 points? Well, in Howard's case, Charlotte dogged him in the half-court -- his first touch that wasn't a rebound came with 3:12 left in the first period, and he finished with just four shots. (Expect Hack-A-Howard to become in vogue however, as Supe shot 1-6 from the charity stripe.) But Carter was horrible, clanking 4 of 19 shots before fouling out. Fortunately for Orlando, Rashard Lewis awoke for 19 points on 8-of-11 shooting and Mickael Pietrus picked up where he left off in last year's playoffs, hitting 4-of-7 three pointers, including a back-breaker with little more than two minutes to play.