Rockets 108, Magic 104: Three-point barrage sends Magic to defeat

Dwight Howard and Victor Oladipo - Thomas Campbell-USA TODAY Sports

James Harden needed just 18 first-half minutes to score 21 points, leading Houston to a victory over the Magic.

The Houston Rockets used smart offensive play and their overall superior talent level to dispatch the Orlando Magic on Wednesday, 108-104, with relative ease. James Harden shot 4-of-6 from three-point range in the first half for 21 points--including a well-contested heave to end the first quarter--and then took the rest of the night off for Houston, which shot 15-of-36 from deep on the night.

Orlando struggled to establish much offensive rhythm after the opening few minutes, which saw a few promising sets, including one in which a double-team of Andrew Nicholson on the left block led to a ball-reversal which found Arron Afflalo in the right corner for an open triple. Houston isn't a strong defensive team, despite Dwight Howard's interior presence and Patrick Beverley's perimeter ball pressure, and while Orlando moved off the ball with purpose and poise, it struggled to actually get the ball where it needed to in order to create good shots.

The Magic indeed missed Tobias Harris' offensive creativity in this game; the team's leading scorer from the 2012/13 season sat out with a sore ankle, leaving Victor Oladipo to shoulder more scoring responsibilities. The second overall pick in June's Draft looked every bit the part of a rookie as he looked tentative in his attempts to create offense--for himself or for teammates--off the dribble. Apart from some impressive drives to the rim, Oladipo looked lost, settling for off-balance jumpers in the top of the key area. He finished with nine points on 3-of-12 shooting, three rebounds, three assists, and one turnover in 20 minutes, and he did not make a single basket outside the restricted area.

Oladipo is a better player than he showed on Wednesday. It's better for him to endure these struggles now than in, say, March.

One bright spot for Orlando in its Wednesday defeat was Nikola Vučević, who ably and stoutly bodied Howard one-on-one in the post. Howard, as Magic fans know from his eight-year tenure in Orlando, is a load with his back to the basket, and coach Jacque Vaughn took a bit of a risk Wednesday by not doubling him. Vučević used his 240-pound frame and his long arms to bump Howard off his preferred spot on the left block, and he even rejected Howard on a hook attempt before Howard even reached full extension with his arm. If Vučević can become a reliable one-on-one defender, he'll take some pressure off his teammates on the perimeter and enable them to defend with more freedom.

E`Twaun Moore also stood out in Wednesday's loss. The Magic's commitment to Oladipo as a core piece leaves the Purdue product in some uncertain territory; though his contract his fully guaranteed, he may not have a long-term future with the team if Oladipo establishes himself as a franchise-level player at both guard spots. Moore, who never quite returned to fom after an injury to his left elbow in 2012/13, scored 10 of his 17 points in the fourth quarter to spark a Magic comeback.

Though Moore is known as a spot-up shooter from the outside--and, if we're honest, specializing in three-pointers will be Moore's ticket to an NBA future--he showed in the loss to Houston a more confident in-between, off-the-dribble game, particularly with floaters going to his right. That floater became a signature, of sorts, for him in his first year with Orlando, but he's able to get it off more easily now, and it gives him another option when opponents run him off the arc.

Moore, Nicholson, and a trio of Magic camp invitees led a fourth-quarter comeback moments after Rockets color commentator Clyde Drexler had just likened Orlando to an NBA D-League team. That group certainly didn't play like one from there on out, and a Nicholson triple--his second of the game--brought Orlando to within two points with 48 seconds to go. Houston countered with a pull-up jumper by Aaron Brooks, but he missed the mark. Moore's go-ahead triple-try with 11 seconds to go went hard and to the right, bricking off the backboard. A brief free-throw exhibition later and the game was in the books.

Orlando returns home for games this Friday and Sunday at Amway Center.

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