Magic need to get it together to be in title mix

Dwight Howard’s Orlando Magic may have lost Monday night’s NBA Finals rematch with the Los Angeles Lakers, but the All-Star center hasn’t lost his sense of humor.

When Howard finally addressed reporters following his team’s 98-92 defeat, he did so utilizing his best Charles Barkley impression, entertaining the assembled media — and himself — with a rambling discourse on Kobe Bryant, Martin Luther King Day and Krispy Kreme donuts.

Of course, it’s a good thing Howard can laugh these days. Otherwise, he might just break down and cry.

"We’re just trying to get back to where we were last season," a somewhat resigned Howard said once he finally started speaking in his own voice.

Last season. It’s a place that seems farther and farther away with each Orlando loss.

The Magic came into L.A. losers of six of their last eight games (including four straight losses to below-average Eastern Conference competition). Orlando was also just 9-10 after a 17-4 start that seemed to suggest they were ready to pick up where they left off last season — as worthy challengers to the Lakers’ crown.

The result was a surprising dearth of hype heading into the first meeting of last year’s Finals participants — a series in which the Lakers claimed franchise’s 15th title.

But for three quarters Monday night, Orlando looked as if it had found that old magic (or at least the Magic of old).

In the first half, Howard hardly looked like the player who had scored 12 or fewer points in seven of his previous 11 games. And he certainly seemed to be offering a pointed rebuttal to critics who have claimed his offensive game hasn’t developed over the years.

Howard scored 18 points before halftime on remarkably efficient 9-for-12 shooting. And after getting started with a flurry of dunks, Howard demonstrated (for at least one game) that he can score from more than just two feet away from the basket, making a pair of bank shots and a running hook shot in the lane.

After Howard kept the Magic close in the first half, the rest of the team took over in the third quarter.

With the Lakers clogging the middle (L.A. kept Howard from taking a shot in the quarter), Orlando’s outside shooters had room to operate. Rashard Lewis hit a pair of 3-pointers and Jameer Nelson and Mickael Pietrus each added one as the Magic took a 67-58 lead behind the strength of a 20-2 run.

"We got stops and we was able to run out," Lewis said. "Instead of setting up a play every time down court, we ran out and moved the ball around and hit some open threes. Most definitely, it felt better."

It felt more than just "better." It felt like last season, when the Magic’s prowess from the perimeter made them one of the toughest teams in the league to defend.

But unfortunately for Orlando, the feeling was fleeting.

And adding insult to injury, it wasn’t Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol or Andrew Bynum who ended the Magic’s little trip down memory lane. It was the unlikely duo of Shannon Brown and Jordan Farmar who reminded Orlando of precisely where it stands in the NBA pecking order this season.

After a pair of Lamar Odom tip-ins tied the score at 68, Farmar gave the Lakers the lead for good, scoring nine straight points. Brown took over from there, scoring nine of his team-high 22 points in the final quarter, helping the Lakers to survive a 4-for-19 shooting performance from Bryant.

As a result, the Magic were left looking for a moral victory, instead of an actual one.

"We showed a little bit of improvement for us," Magic head coach Stan Van Gundy said. "We showed spots, but that’s the problem. We are too streaky and we are not solid enough over the course of the game right now.

"We did play better than we have in a while, which I guess is good. But when you have played better and you have a loss, it’s not a very good feeling."

The question now facing the Magic is whether the feeling will dog them for the remainder of the season.

To a man, the Magic insist they can work their way out of this slump.

They note that key offseason acquisition Vince Carter has been nursing a separated shoulder. Carter returned to action last Friday after missing three games and still seemed to be struggling with the injury. He said he took three shots to the shoulder and it hampered him during his 3-for-11 shooting night.

They point out that Lewis missed the first 10 games of the season because of suspension, making it harder for the five new faces on the team to jell.

And after giving the Lakers all they could handle for 36 minutes, they would like to think they’re not all that far away from the team that gave the Lakers all they could handle for three of their five meetings in the 2009 NBA Finals.

"We got a lot of different players, new guys on the team," Lewis said. "That doesn’t mean we’re still not good. To me, we got better. We’re just not playing that way right now."