There is one exception to Steve Clifford’s strict adherence to a nine-man rotation. His name is Michael Carter-Williams.
Citing a lack of conditioning and the Magic’s strong defense, Clifford expanded his traditional nine-man rotation to ten in order to find minutes for a player who has long held a special spot in his heart and gameplan.
“He’s used to a nine-man rotation so it’s a little out of his territory to play 10 guys,” Carter-Williams told reporters. “But I’m happy. I’m grateful for it, of course. I want to be out there playing just as much as everybody else. I think he knows what I can do for this team.”
That gives the Magic a veteran point guard and career back-up who has admirably held down the starting job despite limitations as a playmaker and on the defensive end; a former No. 1 pick who suffered a mysterious injury and lost his shooting form before being traded and experiencing what seems to be the start of a renaissance; and a former Rookie of the Year who was out of the league before getting the call from Clifford and defending his way to a spot in the Magic rotation. It’s a tale as old as time.
With the Magic now utilizing three point guards on a nightly basis, I thought it would be interesting to watch the game focusing entirely on the utilization and contributions of the three. And what better game to do so than against one of the league’s premiere and most explosive point guards in Trae Young?
I paid little attention to the score, or really anything other than the Magic’s three-headed point guard monster. I kept track of the point guard play-by-play in something of a rather lengthy running diary, hoping to see how the rotations work and what each does or doesn’t do well.
11:47: Young wastes little time attacking Augustin, going around a pick and hitting a floater just 13 seconds in.
11:16: Augustin pressures Young near the logo, and again goes around a screen and hits a jumper from the top of the key.
10:56: Augustin, in the very early going, has hardly touched the ball once the Magic are in their half court set.
9:40: Young loses Augustin while driving baseline, leaving the Magic defense to rotate, with Young dumping it off to a cutting De”Andre Hunter for the easy lay in.
9:26: Augustin crosses the three-point line for the first time on the offensive end and after a pretty dribble hesitation, finds Nikola Vucevic with a wrap-around pass for the lay-in.
9:37: Augustin isn’t involved in the offense, Aaron Gordon drives wildly and forces a tough shot in a congested lane
8:45: With Young bringing the ball up court, Augustin prepares to go over a high screen but Young instead cuts the other way with a crossover and hits the uncontested three. Nikola Vucevic playing far too deep to make any attempt at a switch affords Young far too much separation.
8:30: Augustin attempts to create his own offense, dribbles around a crowd and into the paint but misses an off-balance runner.
8:14: The Hawks run the same play as the previous possession, with Young opting not to use the high screen, he gets around Augustin easily and into the paint but nearly turns the ball over. The Hawks recover and Young is left wide open in the corner for the three. Trae Young 10, Magic 9.
8:13: I MUST STOP THINKING ABOUT WHAT THE WORLD WOULD BE LIKE IF TRAE YOUNG FELL ONE MORE PICK TO THE MAGIC IN THE DRAFT.
7:50: This time, Young does use the high screen, and Augustin is prepared, sticking with him until he picks up his dribble at the three-point line. He gives up the ball to John Collins at the free throw line and he is blocked by the man he least likes playing against, Jonathan Isaac.
7:38: Another Magic possession where Augustin doesn’t get a touch and instead Gordon drives the lane, attacks two defenders and loses the ball on a wild attempt.
7:32: Young finally misses a shot after hitting his first four. It helps that, in true Steph Curry-fashion, he pulled-up from the State Farm logo about 35-feet from the basket with 19 seconds remaining on the shot clock. Credit to Augustin for the quick closeout even from that distance.
7:18: Augustin attacks the basket and forces a wild attempt over the 7-foot Alex Len. The Magic offense is struggling in the half court and not getting many easy looks against a Hawks defense that is not exactly the basketball equivalent of the 86’ Bears.
7:15: First man off the bench is Markelle Fultz.
7:00: Fultz, the better lateral defender, applies more pressure on Young at the logo, forcing him to give up the ball. For some reason, Fultz collapses into the paint to help on a driving Hunter, leaving Young all alone at the three point line. Hunter wisely kicks it to Young, who misses the open three.
6:36: Fultz brings the ball up, Young giving him space. Fultz goes around Vucevic, Young goes under the screen, Fultz pulls up for the open jumper, but misses. Little hesitation from Fultz, attempting his first mid-range shot just 40 seconds after checking in. But until he hits them consistently, defenses are going to allow him to take them all day.
6:25: Right on cue. Out of a timeout, Fultz again uses a Vooch screen, Young again opts to go under, and Fultz this time hits the pull-up jumper.
6:11: Fultz again does a god job of keeping Young in front of him inside mid-court. Young attempts a long lob for the alley-opp that can’t be handled.
5:27: Young once again doesn’t challenge Fultz, giving the ball up. At the other end, Fultz launches his first three of the game but it rims out.
5:21: Young gets around Fultz for the first time via a screen, Fultz recovers and gets his arms up in anticipation of the shot. After the Hawks reset, Young blows by Fultz (again with his arms up), attacks the paint and drops a no-look feed to Bruno Fernando for the lay-in.
4:43: Fultz AGAIN sags off Young to help on a cutting Kevin Heurter, and once again is fortunate that, after the fully expected kick-out, Young misses the open straightaway three.
3:58: Young again gives Fultz as much room as he wants at the three-point line. Fultz accepts the challenge but misses the three. Fultz is now 0-for-5 from three this season.
3:23: Young checks out. Evan Turner checks in. The Magic defense can breathe.
2:19: Fultz leaves it for a trailing Terrence Ross, who drains the three to tie the score at 23.
1:27: After some nice ball movement by Orlando, three members of the Hawks see a member of the Magic lining up to take an open three. After a half step towards him, they seem to realize it was Fultz and immediately stop any attempt at a closeout. Fultz takes his time and….HITS THE THREE! His first as a member of the Orlando Magic. His first in almost a full calendar year, with his last make coming on October 29, 2018. With the first make NOW out of the way, hopefully the rest come easier. Oh, and the next three that Ben Simmons makes will still be the first of his career.
0:24: Not sure if one made three changes an opponent’s defensive philosophy, but Evan Turner is giving Fultz more attention on the perimeter and that allowed Fultz to easily drive around him into the paint, but he throws the ball away. Nevertheless, if Fultz is making shots, defenses won’t be able to back off. This opens the paint and makes cutting easier for Fultz, allowing him to further take advantage of his explosiveness.
12:00: Augustin and Young are back in.
11:13: Augustin puts up an open floater but it rims out. Gordon with the putback. Second chance points helping to keep the Magic in the game despite their lackluster half-court offense.
10:57: Nice job by Augustin going over the double screen to stick with Young, who misses a contested three.
10:40: Another possession where Augustin watches Gordon drive full steam ahead into traffic.
10:09: Young gets around Augustin on the high screen and finds Damien Jones down low for the bucket.
10:00: Augustin explodes to the basket for his first points of the game.
9:52: With Augustin barking at the official about the no-foul call on his bucket, Young drives around him and, with Augustin trailing, maneuvers in the paint and hits the runner. No time to be distracted by the refs when you’re defending someone like Young.
9:36: Augustin and Young going blow for blow. Augustin loses Young on the screen, drives baseline and hits the reverse layup.
9:33: Things were just heating up between Augustin and Young, but that will partially come to an end with 10th man Michael Carter-Williams checking in to play alongside Augustin in the backcourt.
8:59: Augustin misses a runner and Young finds Collins with the lob in transition.
8:29: Augustin finds MCW, who launches a three over an aggressive closeout by the Hawks (?!), but misses badly. Augustin is now the only Magic point guard who hasn’t attempted a three tonight.
7:21: MCW drives into three defenders and throws the ball away.
7:15: In this two-point guard set, with MCW guarding Young, Augustin is stuck with the 6-8 Cam Reddish. MCW is keeping Young in front of him, but Young draws body contact for the whistle. Reddish misses the ensuing three over Augustin.
5:24: Augustin finds Vucevic in the post for buckets on consecutive possessions.
5:08: MCW recovers on Young after a hard screen to force the kick-out, but Heurter knocks down the three.
4:50: Augustin forces a pass down low that Jonathan Issac can’t handle. Leads to a fastbreak lay-up at the other end for Young.
4:40: Fultz replaces Augustin to form a shooting-deprived backcourt duo with MCW.
3:23: Maybe that was a poor choice of words on my part. Fultz hits his second three of the half! Standing O from the Magic bench.
3:03: MCW checks out. The Magic go with the Aminu-Isaac-Gordon smallball lineup. Pretty lead pass by Fultz to a cutting Isaac, but his dunk attempt is blocked.
2:36: Fultz is fouled on a putback dunk attempt. He drains both free throws to reach double figures with 10 points.
2:20: Off a block by Isaac, Fultz pushes the pace downcourt and leaves a no-look dump pass for a trailing Isaac, who converts the layup.
1:43: Young gets separation from Fultz on the screen and hits the jumper.
1:30: Another quality pass from Fultz to a cutting Fournier, but his attempt is swatted away. The Magic are only shooting 39 percent, but they are definitely getting better looks with Fultz running the point tonight.
1:03: Fultz misses badly on a three. He’s taken five attempts from deep in the first half. In 33 games with the Sixers, Fultz attempted five threes in a game just once.
0:00: Magic head to the half down two. Fultz tied with Vucevic and Fournier for a team-high 10 points. Young has 17 points.
11:02: Hawks continue to go to the spread pick-and-roll. Young gets around Augustin and hits the runner. We all know this is coming and there’s not much the Magic point guards can do there. Instead of challenging Young on the switch, Vucevic is backpedaling so he doesn’t get beat to the rim, and that’s giving Young too much space. Vucevic needs to cut him off and rely on the help defense. Also, as we all know, Vooch didn’t make the All-Star team for his pick-and-roll defense.
10:19: Same exact play, only this time it’s Isaac failing to cut off Young. 21 points for Young and many more to come if the Magic can’t contain him in the P&R.
9:54: On cue, much better defensive execution by the Magic on Young’s P&R! Vooch picked up Young at the perimeter to deny the jumper and seal off space for the runner. Young got by Vooch as expected and Isaac was there to protect the rim and swat away Young’s layup attempt.
9:30: Off a Magic turnover, no P&R needed. Young hits from deep.
9:29: I MUST STOP THINKING ABOUT WHAT THE WORLD WOULD BE LIKE IF TRAE YOUNG FELL ONE MORE PICK TO THE MAGIC IN THE DRAFT.
8:01: Fultz checks in for Augustin.
5:56: Tight defense from Fultz on Young, but Young loses him with the step-back and hits the jumper.
3:50: Frustrating moment for the Magic. After Fultz went over the screen and defended Young perfectly into the paint, leading to a missed attempt at the rim, Isaac was unable to corral the loose ball, leading to an offensive putback.
3:00: Vucevic kicks it out of the post to Fultz at the top of the perimeter. No close out, but Fultz hesitates and instead steps in and hits the pull-up jumper from the mid-range area where he still seems more comfortable.
2:35: MCW checks in to again play alongside Fultz.
1:43: MCW brings it up while Fultz plays off the ball. Carter-Williams goes around a screen and puts up a floater with 16 seconds left on the shot clock (probably not what Steve Clifford drew up). The loose ball comes back to MCW, but his putback rims out.
0:31: Fultz goes two-for-one and his pull-up three hits back rim. Mo Bamba cleans it up with the putback jam. Fultz has only played in 35 games in his career, but his six three-point attempts tonight is a career-high, and at the very least is an encouraging sign of the confidence he has in his form and shooting ability.
0:01: The new Southeast version of Steph and Klay strike again! Fultz sets up Carter-Williams for an unlikely three. Magic point guards three-point shooting tonight: Fultz 2 of 6, MCW 1 of 2, Augustin 0 of 0. Just as we all expected.
12:00: Clifford starts the quarter with a backcourt of Augustin and MCW.
11:02: Smothering defense from MCW who, along with a double from Aminu, forces Young to give up the ball with the shot clock winding down.
10:28: MCW swings it to Augustin, who capitalizes on a mismatch with Alex Len and drives in for the layup to give the Magic the lead.
10:02: Augustin called for traveling.
9:55: MCW goes under on the screen and then teams with Bamba to trap Young and force a turnover. MCW picks up the loose ball and passes ahead to Augustin for the fastbreak layup.
9:32: Out of an Atlanta timeout, Clifford sticks with the Augustin-MCW backcourt, along with reserves Terrence Ross, Aminu and Bamba. MCW blocks a jumper by Evan Turner. At the other end, Augustin takes his first three of the game and hits front rim.
8:58: For the third straight play, Carter-Williams makes a key defensive play, this time drawing a charge. And it’s reasons as such that Clifford made him the 10th man.
8:27: MCW again draws an offensive foul on the screen. Steve Clifford may faint.
7:48: Augustin drives the lane and dishes to Vooch for the dunk and the lead. On the ensuing possession he again attacks the basket and draws the foul to get to the line. Hits both.
7:05: Nursing a one-point Magic lead, Carter-Williams strips Jabari Parker, pushes it down court and puts up a contested floater that misses. Probably should have passed it, but when you’ve made eight phenomenal defensive stops in a row, you deserve to make one bad offensive decision. It eventually leads to a pair of free throws by Augustin.
6:42: Carter-Williams grabs the defensive rebounds, runs down court and throws down the emphatic one-handed dunk for a five-point lead. Steve Clifford may have a heart attack.
6:42: Out of an Atlanta timeout, Clifford sticks with Augustin and Carter-Williams, who has earned extra playing time with his defensive impact on a night when the Magic can’t make a shot.
5:56: MCW goes under the screen, giving Young just enough separation to launch from deep and connect to tie the score at 90.
5:34: While Carter-Williams has been the Magic’s spark on the defensive end in the fourth, Augustin has carried them offensively in the quarter. He attacks the paint, spins, and hits the fadeaway to put the Magic back in front. That gives him 10 points in the fourth.
4:23: Young beats Augustin off the dribble and floats one over Vucevic and off the glass, leading to a Magic timeout.
4:23: Fultz checks in for Carter-Williams, and surprisingly, Augustin heads to the bench in favor of Ross. That means this might be Fultz’s game to close.
2:23: Following a missed three by Young, Fultz draws two defenders as he spins into the lane, kicks it out to Fournier, who makes the extra pass to a wide-open Ross in the corner but he misses the three.
2:12: Young beats Fultz to the basket, gets through a crowd along the baseline, and converts the reverse layup to put the Hawks back in front.
1:02: With the score tied, Young beats Fultz with a crossover and three potential Magic help defenders watch as he glides to the basket for the uncontested layup.
0:25: Despite tight defense by Fultz, Young banks in a step-back three that all but seals the victory for the Hawks.
0:25: I MUST STOP THINKING ABOUT WHAT THE WORLD WOULD BE LIKE IF TRAE YOUNG FELL ONE MORE PICK TO THE MAGIC IN THE DRAFT.
0:00: That will do it. The best point guard on the court walks away with the victory. Trae Young had 39 points 9 assists and 7 rebounds and a plus-14 in 36 minutes.
D.J. Augustin finished with 14 points and 4 assists and had a minus-14 in 24 minutes. Markelle Fultz had 12 points and three assists and had a plus-10 in 24 minutes. Michael Carter-Williams added 5 points, 4 rebounds and 3 steals and had a minus-4 in 17 minutes.
Each of the three showed what they do well in flashes. The Augustin-MCW backcourt helped the Magic establish their largest lead in the fourth, but Clifford elected to go to Fultz in the closing minutes.
“We played better when he was on the floor,” Clifford said after the game. “That was our best team by a lot.”
But when the Magic shoot 35.4 percent from the floor, including a disastrous 16.1 percent from three (5-for-31, 1-for-16 from the starters), it doesn’t really matter who their point guard is.