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This is shaping up as some kind of ride

In the 20 years there has been a pro basketball team in the city of Orlando, the most magical thing in town has remained a castle, with Mickey and Minnie nearby.

But in this 20th go-around, the wands seem to be working. This edition of the Orlando Magic may finally be the one to pull an NBA title out of a hat.

For the men of Coach Stan Van Gundy, and star player Dwight Howard, the roller coaster has had few dips. This time, the parade down Main Street could be about tall guys, not dwarfs.

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Oh, there were the seasons of Shaq in the early 1990s, and a run to the NBA Finals in 1995, where they lost in four games to Houston. You remember how that turned out. The place wasn’t big enough for the Diesel and Penny Hardaway, so Shaq came to the Lakers and proved that this place wasn’t big enough, either, for him and Kobe.

Hard lessons for Mr. O’Neal. No matter where he went, it appeared to be a small world after all.

But the departure of Shaq brought a return to a tendency toward brief appearances by Orlando in the playoffs.

Last season, the Magic went out in the second round to the Pistons, but at least one astute observer wasn’t fooled that that meant more of the same.

“They showed signs of this last season,” Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said. “They had a good road record, and they seemed to learn from their playoff experiences.”

So it came to pass in the kingdom of Staples Center on Friday night that the team from the East had a real opportunity to see how rocky this ride to the NBA title might be. The Magic brought its 31-8 record in to play the Lakers, best in the league at 31-7 and everybody’s choice to be in the Finals again this June.

The Magic has hurdles to clear named Celtics and Cavaliers just to get there. The Lakers, in the minds of most, must clear just one. Boredom.

That wasn’t likely to be an issue for the Lakers this night. In the only other game they will play against the Magic in the regular season, they lost Dec. 20 in Orlando, 106-103. A last-second three-pointer by Sasha Vujacic missed in that one.

In the first half, the Lakers had more up their sleeve, taking a 52-44 lead into the locker room. The Magic, used to living off three-point bombs and rugged center play from Howard, got outdone in both areas.

Los Angeles dropped in five of 12 three-pointers, including three of five by Vladimir Radmanovic and another from Derek Fisher in the closing seconds that built the lead to eight. Orlando made four of 12.

And the Lakers’ Andrew Bynum, who got into foul trouble early in the game in Orlando and had only three points in 11 minutes, led Lakers’ scoring with 12. Bryant, who had 41 against the Magic the first time out, had 10 at the half, and also had six rebounds and seven assists.

The 6-foot-11 Howard, who is built like something they should put in plaster on a pedestal outside a Gold’s Gym, had nine points and seven rebounds.

Mostly, it looked like a prelude to a compelling, high-level finish.

And so it began with a revved-up third quarter that saw the Lakers’ halftime lead evaporate quickly and Orlando run off to 69-60. Soon, the Lakers had it back to 75-74 on their side with a tip-in at the buzzer by Pau Gasol.

Twelve minutes to go. Two of the NBA elites playing hard and firing on all cylinders. Time to fasten the seat belts. Movie stars and wannabes in the expensive seats were paying attention now. Jackson, seated erectly as always, jawed at the officials. Van Gundy, a fireplug with arms always extended in a plea for a referee call and a constant look of pain on his face, stomped the sidelines.

Now there was fire and ice on the Staples floor. Wild, competitive basketball. Wild, unruly fans.

It was 101-101 with 1:04 to go. Bryant did what he always does, clicking for 103-101, but little Jameer Nelson made a three pointer, then two free throws to make it 106-103. That was the final score of the first Lakers-Magic game.

In that one, Bryant had missed a late three-pointer, and after a timeout this time, he tried another with 8.9 seconds left. He missed again, the tiny Nelson somehow sneaked in for the rebound -- like magic -- and was fouled by 7-foot Gasol.

Nelson made both free throws and Hedo Turkoglu another out of the frantic finishing scrum.

And it was over. The slipper kept fitting the Cinderella team.

They had swept the Lakers in the regular season, and even made their record, at 32-8, better than the Lakers 31-8.

No fluke team anymore. Just like that, the Magic is for real.

Presto.

--

bill.dwyre@latimes.com.


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