The loss of Dwight Howard for the rest of the season has eliminated a major distraction from the Orlando Magic's locker room, but it's also left a major hole in the lineup.
With the woeful Charlotte Bobcats coming to town, the absence of the star center might not make much of a difference.
The Magic will try to snap a three-game skid and lock up the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference on Wednesday night when they face the slumping Bobcats, who are in danger of posting the worst winning percentage in NBA history.
Howard going down for the season after back surgery last week has allowed Orlando (36-28) to focus on its play rather than the center's trade demands and his tumultuous relationship with coach Stan Van Gundy.
The Magic, though, haven't been nearly as good defensively in the last eight games without Howard - the three-time defending defensive player of the year. Opponents have scored 99.4 points per game, 6.0 above Orlando's season average, and shot 49.2 percent - above the club's season mark of 44.8.
"We didn't do our defensive assignments,' swingman Jason Richardson said after a 101-74 loss at Denver on Sunday.
The Magic can't catch fifth-seeded Atlanta after losing all three games to the Hawks this season, but they're in position to clinch the sixth spot with a two-game edge over New York and Philadelphia with two games left for each team. Orlando won the season series against the 76ers, while the Knicks could still win a tiebreaker with the Magic.
Sixth in the West is not where the Magic envisioned finishing when the season started, but a first-round playoff matchup with No. 3 seed Indiana is probably far more appealing than dropping to seventh and earning a likely meeting with Miami.
Given that, Orlando can't afford to look past a Bobcats team that's dropped a franchise-record 21 in a row.
Charlotte (7-57) needs to defeat the Magic or the Knicks on Thursday to avoid going into the record books as the owner of the league's worst-ever winning percentage. The 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers hold the mark at .110, going 9-73 in that full season, but a 7-59 finish would leave the Bobcats at .106.
"We don't want to be the worst team in NBA history. We know that in the back of our minds going into these next two games,' point guard D.J. Augustin said after scoring 15 points in a 101-73 loss at Washington on Monday.
The Bobcats have lost 10 straight on the road and haven't won anywhere since beating Toronto at home March 17. One of Charlotte's rare wins, though, came against Orlando on March 6, a 100-84 home victory that ended a six-game skid in the series.
It was Charlotte's ninth win in 31 games against the Magic.
The Bobcats fell to 2-13 all-time in Orlando with a 96-89 loss Jan. 17 in their lone visit this season.
The Associated Press News Service
The Associated Press
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