It’s unclear when the Magic’s defense is going to return to the standard they established in recent weeks, but for now they’re relying on their offense to carry them, and it’s never looked better. Thanks to Elfrid Payton’s outstanding performance off the bench, scoring 26 and dishing 14 assists, both career highs, as well as big scoring nights from Serge Ibaka (29) and Evan Fournier (23), the Magic were able to win a shootout in Atlanta, 131-120. Orlando was without Nikola Vucevic for the second game in a row as he recovers from a lower back injury. Shooting 42.4% coming into the night, Orlando hit 58.6% from the field, including 15-34 from downtown. For the Hawks, Dwight Howard led the way with 20 points and 16 rebounds, including 9 offensive boards, while Paul Millsap added 17, most of that coming in the second half.
The Magic and Hawks, despite their lackluster offensive efficiencies to this point in the season, both looked like scoring machines throughout the first quarter. Both teams used a combination of passing and hot shooting to run up the score. It also helped that both teams made a lot of mistakes: for the Magic, a failure to box out the Hawks, leading to 7 offensive rebounds; and for the Hawks, 6 turnovers leading to 10 Magic points. For a short time it looked like the Hawks were going to outrun the Magic, taking a 9-point lead when some of the Magic’s shots stopped falling.
As the bench players filtered into the game, the Magic found a little more energy on the defensive end, starting with a monster block by Gordon after he lost Thabo Sefolosha cutting to the rim but was able to recover. Damjan Rudez got some time as the first big off the bench, as Vogel expanded the rotation to deal with Vucevic’s absence. Fournier led the way early, racking up 11 points, and Orlando led 35-34 after the first.
The offensive roller coaster showed no signs of slowing down in the second quarter, especially not for Orlando. who somehow eclipsed their first quarter scoring total by reaching 37 in the second. Among several factors leading to the Magic’s first half scoring success was their high number of 3-point attempts (7-19), and more importantly their almost nonexistent turnovers. It wasn’t until the final 30 seconds of the half that the Magic finally committed their first (and then second) giveaway, and that made up for the Hawks’ success rebounding their own misses.
While Fournier was the scoring star of the half, Elfrid Payton did an excellent job controlling the offense, racking up 5 assists and getting 13 points of his own on an efficient 6-7 from the field. For the Hawks, Dwight Howard dominated the first half, scoring 17 points, many of those thanks to his 7 offensive rebounds. The defense wasn’t much better for Orlando in the second quarter, but the offensive output was more than enough to stretch their lead to 10 at halftime, 72-62.
For the first part of the third quarter, the Magic’s offense turned into the bizarro version of itself from the first half, seemingly unable to finish a possession without turning the ball over. The Hawks, in general, have been very good at forcing turnovers, and it was like they remembered how good they were and tried to make up for it all at once, applying suffocating pressure on the ball, clogging passing lanes, and reaching for steals whenever possible. After going the first 23 minutes of regulation without a turnovers, the Magic had 7 in the next 12 minutes, and that stymied their offensive output. The Hawks took advantage, quickly erasing the lead to take a small lead of their own.
The Magic were finally able to calm down and run their offense again in the second part of the quarter, and they were rewarded once more with buckets, including another 3-pointer from Payton. Payton did a much better job pushing the ball up the court whenever possible compared to his usual habit of walking it up slowly, and that opened up opportunities to make plays for others, such as when he applied just enough pressure to find Ibaka for another 3-pointer trailing the play. Ibaka was a steady scoring presence all night, reaching 24 after 3 quarters, including 4-7 shooting from beyond the arc. The Magic managed to retake a small lead entering the 4th, 99-96.
The fourth quarter was when the Magic’s defense finally showed its presence, without letting off the gas on the offensive end. Payton continued his excellent performance, getting his third 3-pointer in as many tries, and reached double-digit assists with 11 minutes left to play. A big part of how he was able to rack up those assists, of course, was that everyone was making shots, and a big part of that was the much-improved off-ball movement. Meeks, Fournier, and even Payton himself were able to get open thanks to speedy off-ball cutting and screening, movements the Hawks were unable to keep up with throughout the night. They were able to make a small run when the starters returned to the game, but the Magic quickly got things back under control. Payton stayed in the game until the end, playing most of the second half and the most minutes of anyone all game.