The Magic, or any other team in NBA history for that matter, will not be able to outshoot their opponent every night.
Particularly not on nights when Kemba Walker is carving up the Orlando defense on pick-and-rolls, weaving through a sea of blue jerseys at will and exploding to the basket as he did in the Charlotte Hornets’ 120-113 win over the Magic on Sunday.
All that the Magic’s 4-1 record had been built upon entering Sunday – pacing, ball movement, perimeter shooting – failed them during stretches against the Hornets. That combined with Walker’s 34-point, 10-assist performance and the Hornets’ 59-40 rebounding advantage, allowed Charlotte to build a 16-point lead, score 68 points in the paint and shoot 54.1 percent from the field.
Still - on a night where Orlando saw few uncontested shots and failed for long stretches to make the open looks they did get - the Magic lingered. That in itself, is an encouraging sign for a young, and hopefully, up-and-coming team that last season may have let an opponents’ run snowball into an insurmountable deficit.
The Magic closed the third quarter strong, with Evan Fournier hitting a deep three and Shelvin Mack intercepting a pass, pushing the ball down court, and feeding Jonathon Simmons, who converted a three-point play to cut the Orlando deficit to 93-86.
Simmons, who had a career-high 27 points, later capped a 10-0 run with a runner that made it a one-possession game, pulling the Magic within 93-90. Even after Walker responded with a three-point play and a feed to Marvin Williams to increase the lead to 103-94, the Magic answered with long jumpers by Aaron Gordon and Terrence Ross to pull within 103-98 with 5:52 to go. Fournier then had an open look at a three, but passed it up to drive the lane, only to miss a lay-up.
Even with Frank Vogel employing a point guard-less lineup down the stretch in hopes of having Simmons use his size and strength to contain Walker, the Hornets point guard managed to penetrate the lane and helped Charlotte pull away. Walker seemingly circled every Magic defender on his way into the paint for a lay-up, and followed with a step-back three to open a 110-99 lead.
Dwight Howard - who has now covered just about every color of the rainbow in NBA jerseys - had 22 points and 10 rebounds against his old team. Howard, who entered the game leading the league in rebounding at over 17 per game, overpowered Nikola Vucevic down low, muscling his way into the paint to established prime post position throughout.
It was a rough night for Vooch on the opposite end of the court, as well. The Magic center shot 6-for-17 from the field, including 2-of-8 from three, to finish with 15 points and 11 rebounds.
The Magic, who were playing without rookie Jonathan Isaac due to an illness, found their rhythm and had a much better assist rate in the second half, putting up 37 points in the third.
Simmons, who eclipsed his previous career-high of 20 points, mixed it up by shooting from the outside (3-of-4 from three) and aggressively attacking the rim to get to the free throw line (6-of-9 from the line).
Fournier added 23 points and five assists. Aaron Gordon had 17 points, nine rebounds and a highlight-reel block in which he swatted away Malik Monk’s dunk attempt after he had lobbed a pass to himself off the backboard. Gordon shot 7-for-16, hitting two of his six attempts for three. On a side note, Gordon was visibly and uncharacteristically frustrated after Fournier picked up his dribble in the corner and failed to deliver Gordon the ball in the post with around 4:30 to go in the fourth. Could be something worth keeping an eye on moving forward.
Ross added 17 points on 6-for-15 shooting. Mack had 10 points off the bench.
As a team, the Magic shot just 42.3 percent and went 11-for-33 from three. Tht included an 0-for-7 performance from the field by D.J. Augustin, who was held scoreless and had five assists. The Magic trailed 61-49 at the half after forcing shots in the early going and being held to 34 percent shooting, including 5-for-19 from three. There were also some ugly defensive miscues, highlighted by back-to-back possessions during the second quarter in which Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Howard got behind an unaware Magic defense for easy buckets.
To their credit, the Magic managed to keep it close and gave themselves a chance to win. They have now scored over 110 points in each of their first six games, though it doesn’t mean much when the opposing team scores more. If Orlando is to build on its surprising early-season success, they’ll have to shore up their rebounding, play sound interior defense and find ways to win when shots aren’t falling.