NBA: Nelson, Magic beat Bobcats 90-86 for 3-0 lead
AP Sports Writer
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — With their superstar center stuck on the bench again, the Orlando Magic showed the depth, grit and experience of a championship contender.
Jameer Nelson scored 32 points and the Magic overcame Dwight Howard's continuing foul trouble and a loud, towel-waving crowd in Charlotte's return to the playoff stage to beat the Bobcats 90-86 on Saturday, taking a commanding 3-0 lead in their first-round series.
Howard played only 26 minutes and fouled out with 3:32 left. But Nelson had a key bucket down the stretch and backup center Marcin Gortat hit two free throws with 12 seconds left to put it away.
Stephen Jackson scored 19 points, but was 6 of 18 from the field and missed a key 3-pointer in the final minute for the Bobcats.
For the third straight game, Howard played about half the game, finishing with 13 points, eight rebounds and seven blocks, but the Magic can clinch a spot in the second round with a victory here in Game 4 Monday.
The cold-shooting Bobcats, meanwhile, face the prospect of a first-round sweep in their first playoff appearance.
Charlotte hadn't hosted a playoff game since the Hornets' last year here in 2002 before bolting for New Orleans. But with excited owner Michael Jordan squirming in his seat and relaying pointers to players from the end of Charlotte's bench, the 6-year-old Bobcats wilted in a tight fourth quarter despite the biggest crowd in franchise history.
Nelson's floater in the lane with 1:32 left put Orlando ahead 85-82. After an empty possession for each team, Raymond Felton's driving layup with 52 seconds left cut the lead to one.
Nelson then missed a contested layup, giving Charlotte the ball with 31 seconds left. But Jackson was badly short on a straightaway 3-point attempt.
Vince Carter hit two free throws at the other end, Felton missed a shot in the lane, and Gortat then hit 3-of-4 free throws to put it away.
Howard fouled out after picking up his last two fouls in 11 seconds. The first came after he tangled with Tyson Chandler in the post on the offensive end, the second when he tried to contest Felton's driving layup.
Felton's ensuing free throw put Charlotte ahead 80-79.
The Bobcats immediately went small, putting in an extra guard, but Rashard Lewis responded with two strong drives to the hoop and four free throws to put Orlando ahead for good.
Lewis added 14 points for Orlando, which overcame 9-of-30 3-point shooting.
Gerald Wallace scored 13 points on 4-of-12 shooting for Charlotte. Felton also scored 13, but shot 5 of 14 and again couldn't contain Nelson.
The crowd was giddy when Howard had three fouls — and a technical to boot from referee Joe Crawford — with 10:40 left in the first half after getting called for an offensive foul tangling with Chandler in the post.
It didn't matter early with Nelson dominating. As in his 32-point effort in Game 1, Nelson constantly beat Felton off the dribble for easy layups when he wasn't hitting 3-pointers. His four-point play that included the sight of Felton flailing away in attempt to grab him, gave Orlando a 29-27 lead after the first quarter.
But with Howard on the bench, the Bobcats built a 41-33 second-quarter lead on the strength of two 3-pointers from Larry Hughes, who was 2 of 7 from the field in the series.
Nelson got hot again in the third quarter in Orlando's 11-0 spurt to retake the lead. But Howard was called for his fourth foul with 3:40 left in the third quarter.
The Magic pounded the ball into Howard early in the fourth quarter with mixed results, thanks to suspect free-throw shooting.