Dwight Howard was barking in the locker room, mocking some Lakers he claimed called his Orlando Magic team "puppies."
Out on the court, the Magic showed they can bite.
Vince Carter had 25 points, Howard finished with 15 points and 16 rebounds and the Magic beat the Lakers 96-94 on Sunday to hand Los Angeles its first three-game losing streak of the Pau Gasol-Kobe Bryant Era. "Alpha dogs usually have the big bark," Howard said afterward. "But since we’re so-called puppies, we won’t bark as loud."
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Carter made his first 13 free throws and kept the Magic in control, showing why Orlando made the move for the eight-time All-Star after losing to the Lakers in last year’s finals.
Throw feisty Matt Barnes into the mix to add some physicality, and the Magic finally got some reprieve from the sting a finals failure that has yet to wash away.
"You could see it in everybody’s faces and everybody’s demeanor," Carter said. "Everybody on that floor wanted to win that game. It wasn’t just, ‘Yeah, OK, whatever.’ It was, ‘Let’s go get it.’ That game was Game 7."
Bryant played through a minor stomach illness to score 34 points, and Gasol added 20 for the Lakers. But they all walked to the locker room distraught and dejected after Bryant missed a 20-footer at the buzzer to seal their latest loss.
Even being in the same locker room where they toasted to the title trophy, there might not be a time this season that champagne-soaked championship celebration last June felt so distant.
"There are some things that, as an experienced team, we should not have happen to us," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "Those are the things we try to remedy, but today we were just a little bit off."
This one had all the drama of last season’s series. Barnes made a 3-pointer to push the Magic’s lead to six with 1:10 remaining. A missed free throw by Jameer Nelson gave the Lakers a chance to tie, and Bryant did just that with a 3-pointer — if only for a second — with 12.9 seconds remaining.
Bryant jumped into his teammates pouring out from the bench in what would be a premature celebration. Officials reviewed the play and ruled that it was only a two.
Carter’s lone missed free throw gave the Lakers another chance, but Bryant’s shot landed short. And just like that, the Lakers are in the first three-game skid since they acquired Gasol from Memphis in February 2008.
"I’m worried about what we can do to win ball games, I’m not worried about streaks," Gasol said after the testy game.
Bryant and Barnes continuously traded elbows and were each hit with a technical foul in the third quarter after going chest-to-chest in a verbal spat. Barnes had a put-back dunk a few plays later and dangled his legs on Bryant, who extended his right arm slightly into his opponent’s chest, leading to another confrontation.
Barnes and Derek Fisher would get double fouls in the game’s final minute, with the pair brushing each other after Orlando’s feisty forward threw a blind-sided screen. "We can’t be the hunted any more. We got to be the hunters," Barnes said. "We got to go at people and take it at people, no matter who it is."
Barnes’ attitude brushed off on his usually calm teammates.
Howard interjected and was called for a technical — his 14th this season — after muttering a few words at Bryant. The two All-Stars and Olympic teammates kept the verbal jabs going.
"It’s the kind of thing you like to see," Bryant said. "You start getting two playoff contenders, it’s good to get a little chippy."
The Lakers came back just like they did in Games 4 and 5 last year in Orlando, scoring 10 straight points — including the first eight to start the fourth — to cut the lead to 74-72.
Howard answered with a dunk over Gasol, who was called for a flagrant foul on the play midway through the fourth. That put Orlando ahead 81-74 before a back-and-forth finish.
One that finally went the Magic’s way.
"You got a team full of Pitbulls and a team full of Cane Corsos, and that’s what happens," Howard said of the physical play. "We’re the Pitbulls. Pitbulls are a little bit shorter, and Corsos are a little bit bigger. But, hey, we got the job done."
Notes: Lakers F Ron Artest channeled his inner Dennis Rodman. His hair was dyed blonde with letters in three different languages in Lakers purple. He didn’t want to talk about his hair, but he posted on his Twitter page that the letters spelled "Defense" in Hebrew, Hindi and Japanese. … Yankees pitchers CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte were sitting in the first row on the baseline.