The Magic’s six-game road trip reaches its midway point on Friday in Minnesota.
Of the four remaining games on the Western swing of the trip, the match-up with the 17-21 Timberwolves seemingly would have been the best opportunity for Orlando to steal a win. After Minnesota, the Magic face the Clippers, the Kings (on the second game of a back-to-back), and the Jazz.
But the Magic face the T-wolves at a time when their star center is in the midst of his best stretch of the season, and their starting point guard is set to return after a nine-game absence.
To defeat the Timberwolves, who have lost three of four games, the Magic will have to find a way to limit Karl-Anthony Towns. That’s something KAT’s opponents have been unable to do over his last five games, as Towns has averaged 28.2 points, 17.2 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game while shooting 53.1 percent from the field.
Nikola Vucevic has drawn praise for his improvement on the defensive end this season under Steve Clifford, as he patrols the paint with his arms constantly extended. But he - and Aaron Gordon, if he gets the call defensively at times as he has in the past - will draw one of his most challenging assignments of the season against the 23-year-old KAT. The Magic did a better job than most containing Towns last season, limiting him to 18 points and 15 points in their two match-ups last season as the teams split the series.
“He’s scoring in a lot of different ways,” Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau told reporters. “He’s doing a lot better job of moving when he kicks the ball out too, so he’s getting a second and third opportunity. He’s making multiple efforts on both sides of the ball now.”
Andrew Wiggins could also see a carry-over effect against the Magic after scoring a season-high 31 points in a 115-102 loss to Boston.
Towns and Wiggins lead what has been a rather disappointing Timberwolves team that’s middle of the pack in offensive rating at 109.4 points per 100 possessions (14th in league).
Minnesota, like Orlando, has suffered point guard ankle injuries of late but will be getting a boost when they face Orlando. Jeff Teague, after missing his last nine games, will make his return. The rejuvenated Derrick Rose, averaging 18.9 points and 4.8 assists, has missed his last three games and will be out on Friday. When the first returns of All-Star voting were released on Thursday, Rose was actually second in the West backcourt with a fairly sizeable lead over James Harden and Russell Westbrook...
Tyus Jones had been starting in place of Teague and Rose at point guard and, in his last three games, averaged 13.7 points and 9.0 assists.
In the Magic’s 112-84 win over the Bulls, the Magic saw the return of their starting point guard, D.J. Augustin, after a one-game absence that felt like an eternity. Jonathon Simmons, who briefly served as back-up point guard before missing two games, could also be back on the court for the Magic on Friday.
Jonathon Simmons, who has missed the last two games because of a sprained left ankle, will attempt to go through all of the Magic's shootaround now at the Target Center, coach Steve Clifford said. If Simmons has no issues with the ankle, he'll be on track to play tonight.— Josh Robbins (@JoshuaBRobbins) January 4, 2019
Against the Bulls, Augustin had 10 points and six assists, Aaron Gordon flirted with his first career triple-double, and Nikola Vucevic posted a 22-point, 12-rebound game as the Magic shot 57.9 percent from the field.
The Magic offense, after not reaching the 100-point mark in seven consecutive games, has now hit triple digits in their last five.
We’ll see if that trend continues against a Timberwolves defense that is below average defensively with a rating of 110.0 points per (20th in league).