The Orlando Magic could have perused Charlotte's injury-riddled lineup and recent losing streak and figured a win Sunday was assured.
No Alonzo Mourning. No Larry Johnson. No problem, right?
But the Magic, which fell into that trap earlier this month and lost to a weaker Milwaukee team, has grown up some.
Its motto: No sure things.
Despite a lapse at the start of the second half, and perhaps a hint of overconfidence, the Magic beat Charlotte 114-103 to extend its franchise-record winning streak to seven, improve to 33-20 and close within two games of Atlantic leader New York.
"Even with those two guys out, they're still a dangerous team," Magic All-Star center Shaquille O'Neal said.
"We had to prepare just like they were playing," guard Nick Anderson added.
O'Neal, who had a team-high 21 points, 11 rebounds and 5 blocks, nearly neutralized the Magic's advantage when he hurt his ailing left knee.
He had banged knees with Indiana's Derrick McKey last Wednesday and bumped it again sliding into a marble staircase at home early Sunday morning. Then, 2:27 into the game, he collided with newly-acquired center Frank Brickowski and limped off.
With O'Neal out, the perimeter-oriented Hornets jumped out to an 18-15 lead with 4:03 left in the opening quarter. O'Neal returned moments later, to the delight of the sellout crowd of 15,291 at the Orlando Arena.
His presence opened up the outside game as the Magic regained the lead _ for good _ 25-24 on a Dennis Scott three-pointer in the waning seconds of the quarter. O'Neal and reserve forward Donald Royal then combined for 19 second-quarter points, pushing the Magic lead to 58-45 at halftime.
But smooth-shooting forward Eddie Johnson and Brickowski _ playing his first game as a Hornet after he was obtained Thursday from Milwaukee for veteran Mike Gminski and a first-round draft pick _ led an 11-0 run to start the second half.
"We just went into a big lapse; they weren't doing anything different," Magic point guard Anfernee Hardaway said. "We just got rattled a little bit. We threw the ball away a couple of times, and they hit some big shots."
A Brickowski jumper made it 59-58 with 8:07 left, but forward Anthony Avent tipped in a Hardaway miss at the 7:38 mark, igniting an 18-4 run that carried Orlando to a 77-62 lead.
"That's been sort of our problem; we haven't been able to sustain anything," said coach Allan Bristow, whose Hornets (23-30) have lost five straight and 13 of the past 14.
Of course, sustaining something would be easier with Mourning and Larry Johnson pounding inside to complement the outside shooting of Eddie Johnson, Dell Curry and Hersey Hawkins. Instead, the Hornets are relying on Continental Basketball Association alums, such as Marty Conlon, and several journeymen, such as David Wingate.
Still, a barrage of three-pointers by Curry, three in the final quarter alone, kept the Hornets close. With the Magic up 96-91 and 5:53 to go, Hardaway and backup shooting guard Anthony Bowie came into the game and took control offensively.
Bowie scored 10 of his 12 points and Hardaway seven of his 15 down the stretch. At the defensive end, it was all O'Neal. He had two blocks and a steal, the latter leading to a Bowie jumper.
"We just want to keep winning," O'Neal said.
No matter what.
Notes: With three steals Sunday, Hardaway has 130 to break the team's single-season record. . . . Power forward Larry Krystkowiak, out since Nov. 17 with a foot injury, played three minutes, hitting his lone field-goal attempt.