Superman is back!
After 8 seasons that include 4 playoff apperances and 1 trip to the NBA Finals, Dwight Howard will be at Amway Center for the first time in purple and gold to take on his former team the Orlando Magic (18-46).
His return will probably prompt a lot of boos from the crowd considering everything that went on the entire "Dwightmare" last season leading to his trade to the Lakers (33-31). Howard had admitted not knowing how he'll react to how Magic fans will welcome him the moment he steps out of that locker room as the visitor. But whatever the emotion he gets from that arena, he has to remember that he and the Lakers are still fighting to stay in the playoff picture.
The Lakers were a team 8 games below .500 and was staring at a possibility of missing the playoffs for only the 6th time in franchise history and the 3rd time since the late Dr. Jerry Buss purchased the team in 1979. But 16 wins and just 6 losses later, the Lakers have taken over the 8th and final spot in the west with 90-81 a victory over the Bulls on Sunday.
But a Jazz victory against the Pistons last night had pushed the Lakers back into the 9th spot since Utah holds the tie-breaker versus Los Angeles. This makes tonight's game even more crucial for the Lakers to get a victory.
The Lakers are in the first game of a 3-game road trip that ends in Indiana on Friday. Not to mention that they'll head to Atlanta tomorrow for a back-to-back schedule. Of the 3 games, Orlando is the only team not bound for the playoffs, so Howard and the Lakers better take care of business despite the hype that will surely surround this matchup.
The Magic defeated the Lakers at Staples Center back in December, 113-103. Howard finished the game with 21 points and 15 rebounds, but his 7-of-14 free-throw shooting in the final quarter helped Orlando take a 12-2 run and a shocking victory over the Lakers.
But as we're seeing today, a lot of things changed for the better for the Lakers since that forgettable game. The question is, will Howard finally put Orlando in the past and anchor the Lakers tonight for the future?
This is the final meeting of the season between these teams. The Lakers have not taken the season series from the Magic since the 2006-07 season and have not won at the Amway Center since the deciding Game 5 of the 2009 NBA Finals.
Matchup of the Game
Kobe Bryant vs. Arron Afflalo: Kobe may have dropped 34 points on him last time, but Afflalo's 30 points ultimately was the difference in that game. There's no question Orlando has given Afflalo an opportunity to shine after 5 seasons on the bench in Detroit and Denver. He's averaging 16.8 points, 3.3 assists and 3.8 rebounds this season, and at 7.7 million a year, that's not a bad investment for Orlando considering that he is also one of the better defenders in the league. But tonight, Afflalo is facing a Kobe Bryant bent on keeping his team in the playoffs. Good luck would probably not suffice...but good luck!
Keys to the Game
> Contain Nelson: Jameer Nelson is 7th in the league in assists averaging 7.5 a game and putting up 14.6 points per game. More importantly, he has taken a bit of exception of Howard asking the team to trade him this summer, so expect Nelson to play with a chip on his shoulder tonight. The Lakers have to make sure to limit his trips in the paint and make him play in a lot of pick-and-roll defense since Nelson's defensive attention tonight is to not let Steve Nash become a factor. Not sure how he's gonna do that with Howard setting the pick and Nash having the size advantage over him.
> Activity: This game may not have any playoff implications for the Magic, but they know what a loss would do to the Lakers. Expect them to bring a lot of energy and emotion on the floor, so the Lakers better be ready to bring it, as well.
> Weather the Crowd: No doubt the Magic fans will boo Howard each time he has the ball in his hands from the start. The only way to quiet them down is to take control of the game from tip-off and make sure the Magic doesn't get any glimmer of hope in getting another win.
Watch Out For
LAKERS: Kobe Bryant: All eyes are going to be on Dwight tonight, but the Mamba will still be the star of the show. However, that all depends upon how Howard reacts to the crowd and how he approaches this game. If Kobe sees him dominating and being active, he'll probably let the big guy shine in order to help him put Orlando in the rear view mirror. If not, expect another furious game from Bryant to keep the Lakers in the playoffs.
MAGIC: Nikola Vucevic: He may be a sophomore in the NBA, but this kid can get it done on both ends of the floor. He's averaging 12.3 points, 11.4 rebounds and 1 block per game. He's a long, active body that can do damage under the hoop. Dwight and Earl Clark have to be on par with him or he could turn out to be the boost the Magic needs, especially with Glen Davis out.
@ Orlando Magic
Tip-off: 4:00 p.m. (PST)
TV: TWC SportsNet (Southern California)
Radio: 710 AM ESPN/1330 KWKW
LAKERS: Pau Gasol (foot) and Jordan Hill (hip) are out.
MAGIC: Glen Davis (foot) and Hedo Turkoglu (suspended) are out.