By Dan Arritt, The Sports Xchange – UPI
The Lakers have gone 9-4 since they lost 127-105 in Orlando on Jan. 31, the second-largest margin of victory for the Magic this season.
A week after that loss, the Lakers traded high-scoring reserve guard Jordan Clarkson and speedy forward Larry Nance Jr. to the Cleveland Cavaliers for two-time All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas, veteran forward Channing Frye and a 2018 first-round pick.
But the biggest difference between Los Angeles now and the Lakers at the end of January is the return of rookie point guard Lonzo Ball. He missed half of January and most of February with a knee injury but has played his best basketball since his return.
The highlight came in a 116-112 victory at the San Antonio Spurs on Saturday, when he totaled 18 points, seven rebounds and 11 assists.
Orlando (20-44) was also without a key player in its last meeting with the Lakers as leading scorer Aaron Gordon missed the game with a strained left hip flexor. He returned two weeks ago and is averaging 17.2 points and 8.5 rebounds in his past six games.
The Lakers (28-35) will also get their first look at Orlando rookie forward Jonathan Isaac, who returned last weekend after missing two months with a severely sprained ankle. Isaac, the sixth overall draft pick last June, had seen his minutes and production climb at the time of the injury, but has combined for only three points in the three games since his return, missing all seven field goal attempts in the past two.
“I’m not worried about him at all,” Orlando coach Frank Vogel said. “He’s going to be fine. He knows it’s going to take time.”
Orlando has had four losing streaks of seven games or longer this season. The Magic ended their second seven-game losing streak by beating the visiting Detroit Pistons and Memphis Grizzlies last weekend before losing Monday to the Utah Jazz 94-80 to open this five-game road trip. The Magic shot only 34.1 percent.
The Lakers had a chance to test themselves against the red-hot Portland Trail Blazers on Monday but couldn’t protect an 11-point lead with just over five minutes remaining and lost 108-103 to end a five-game winning streak.
Brandon Ingram, who averages 16.2 points for Los Angeles, missed the past two games with a strained groin and will miss at least the next two. Lakers coach Luke Walton doesn’t want his team finding excuses down the stretch.
“We can’t waste the last 20 games of the season,” Walton told reporters after practice Tuesday. “We’ve got to use these as opportunities to build momentum into the summer. … Build momentum, get confidence and get better, because it is all part of the journey that we’re on to get back to being a playoff and, eventually, a championship team.”
Orlando made franchise-record nine 3-pointers in the third quarter and scored 43 points against the Lakers in the last game. Los Angeles remains one of the better 3-point defending teams, however, limiting opponents to 34.8 percent from beyond the arc, fifth-lowest in the NBA.