The Los Angeles Lakers have looked poised for much of this season as they chase their second straight title until suddenly seeming to lose their edge.
The Orlando Magic were going through a bit of a rough spell in the first finals rematch seven weeks ago, but they've quickly regained their swagger.
In the first meeting in Orlando since the Lakers won last season's title, the defending champs try to avoid losing three straight for the first time in more than two years Sunday when they visit the surging Magic.
With a 99-86 win at Amway Arena on June 14, Los Angeles (46-17) took last season's NBA finals over Orlando in five games to win the franchise's 15th championship.
"We didn't like it at all," Orlando's Dwight Howard said. "We know how tough it is to get to the finals, and to make it and lose and have a team celebrate on your home floor, it hurts. But you live and you learn."
The Lakers again look like they have what it takes to win another title, but they're coming off a couple of troubling losses to teams in the hunt for one of the last playoffs spots in the mediocre Eastern Conference.
After a 114-111 overtime loss to Miami on Thursday, Los Angeles looked flat in Friday's 98-83 defeat in Charlotte. The Lakers shot 36.3 percent against the Bobcats and committed 20 turnovers in matching the number of losses they had all of last season with 19 games to play.
Kobe Bryant had 26 points on 9 of 21 shooting and said after the game he planned on speaking with his teammates.
When asked what the tone of that talk would be, the 12-time All-Star replied: "What do you think?"
Pau Gasol is in the middle of the Lakers' offensive struggles. He had 11 points on 5 of 14 shooting against the Bobcats after scoring 10 on 4 of 11 from the field Thursday. Los Angeles needs Gasol to play well to be successful, as the team is 4-5 when he scores 11 points or fewer, compared to 31-6 when he reaches 12.
The 7-foot Spaniard helped carry the offense in Los Angeles' first meeting of the season with Orlando, a 98-92 home win Jan. 18. With Bryant bothered by a broken right index finger, a sore back and scoring only 11 points on 4 of 19 shooting, Gasol had 17 points.
Gasol looks to bounce back from these last two poor performances to help Los Angeles avoid dropping three straight for the first time since Jan. 23-27, 2008 -- one week before the team acquired the three-time All-Star center from Memphis.
"I think everybody's angry, but we're not angry at the right things," Andrew Bynum said. "We might be angry with each other. So that's not always that great."
Especially with a finals rematch looming.
The Magic (43-20) defeated New Jersey 97-87 on Friday for their fourth straight win and 17th in 22 games. This impressive stretch began immediately following the loss to the Lakers in January, Orlando's seventh defeat in nine games.
Although the Magic are winning with regularity, Stan Van Gundy isn't very happy with the way his team is playing with the lead.
The Nets were able to cut Orlando's 17-point, fourth-quarter lead to eight in the waning minutes. While this didn't hurt against woeful New Jersey, it could be a different story against an elite team like the Lakers.
"All year, losing the lead is how we play," Van Gundy said. "Give us a lead and we will play poorly at both ends of the floor. I have absolutely no idea how to fix it."
Matt Barnes led the Magic with 16 points Friday, while Howard finished with 11 points and 16 rebounds. Howard had 24 points on 10 of 14 shooting and 12 boards against the Lakers in January.