The Orlando Magic didn't beat the Charlotte Bobcats on Wednesday night so much as they suffocated them. Larry Brown's crew managed one field goal in the game's first nine minutes, had just 30 points at halftime and finished on the losing end of Orlando's wire-to-wire, 92-77 triumph. The Magic lead the series 2-0 heading to Charlotte for the next two games.
• Playing better without Superman. Once again, Dwight Howard was plagued by foul trouble, which reduced his playing time to 28:32. But, unlike Game 1, backup Marcin Gortat was prepared and effectively aggressive in his time on the court, taking two charges, blocking a shot and registering a plus-13 in his 19:28 (Howard was plus-2).
More conscious of feeding Howard in the post than they were the previous game, the Magic also generated better spacing, ball movement and overall activity when Howard sat and that responsibility was removed. VinceCarter began penetrating and getting to the foul line and, for the second straight game, Mickael Pietrus was a tonic off the bench.
The Magic didn't even suffer from Howard's absence on the defensive end, holding Charlotte without a field goal for more than seven minutes during an extended second-quarter stretch when the Defensive Player of the Year was on the sideline.
• It's tough to defend -- and officiate -- Dwight Howard. In his prime, Shaquille O'Neal was so large, quick and strong that it was difficult for officials to judge what was "normal" contact and what was a foul on either team. Add in the Diesel's terrible free-throw shooting and the importance of putting Shaq in foul trouble, and you had dozens of bang-bang borderline calls involving the big fella.
Howard is now in that situation for exactly the same reasons. Because he can't be budged easily and would look silly flopping, it looks like he's meting out the contact even as he absorbs it and players bounce off him. Given the scrappy nature and relative ineptitude of the Bobcats, he's often playing the heavy in their encounters by default.
The officials blew the call on his third infraction -- a reach-over for an offensive rebound that he got on grace more than brawn, with very little or no contact. But the fourth foul was a classic collision -- defense of a layup that could have gone either way, and earned coach Stan Van Gundy a technical for arguing.
Howard can help himself in two ways. First, maintain his cool and avoid the extracurricular shoving and arm entanglements that opponents are increasingly, and successfully, using to bait and annoy him. Second, he can hit his free throws. He was 5-for-12 on Wednesday, after shooting 1-for-6 from the line in the previous game. Those free-throw attempts will climb higher and higher, commensurate with the stakes involved, in future series this postseason.
• Coach Brown should change the rotation of his "Big Cats." During the first two games, Brown has started with the sage veteran TheoRatliff on Howard, then gone to his best offensive option, NazrMohammed, and only after that brought TysonChandler in as Howard's third foil. But that means the Bobcats have been down 13 and nine, respectively, by the time Chandler first gets any burn. Chandler is the most foul prone of the trio, but also is the best at defending the rim and gets under Howard's skin more than the other two.
Meanwhile, the Magic have learned to ignore Ratliff's short jumper (he was 0-for-3 on Wednesday) and Howard regularly got deep position on Ratliff during the first part of the third quarter. Mohammed remains a good middle change of pace to offense, but it wouldn't hurt to try flipping the order of Chandler and Ratliff for Game 3.
• Lockdown defense or inept offense?Yes. The Magic moved their feet and were generally much more animated at the defensive end. But the Bobcats have been a coach's nightmare this series, with shoddy shot selection (blame the egos of StephenJackson and GeraldWallace and the lack of leadership from point guard RaymondFelton), a tendency to settle for the outside jumper and an inability to focus until after they are hopelessly behind.
• Rashard Lewis is finding his groove. After a slipshod first period in Game 1, Lewis has defended BorisDiaw extremely well while finding his range for a combined 13-for-23 on field goals -- including 6-of-12 from three-point territory. Lewis also leads his team in plus/minus in each of the last two games (he's plus-31 for the series). After a wretched showing in three regular-season games against the Bobcats, Lewis has joined Pietrus in sealing off the weaknesses in Orlando's game at both ends.