The word “physicality” was mentioned time and time again by Orlando Magic head coach Steve Clifford during his pregame conference with media members late Wednesday afternoon.
In Clifford’s opinion, his team hadn’t been playing with the requisite amount of physicality, purpose of play, and tenacity through training camp, the preseason, and early in the regular season.
His team got the message (somewhat) against the New York Knicks, out-rebounding their opponent by a margin of 52-44 en route to a 95-83 win on their home floor.
Clifford called Wednesday night “by far” the best his team has played during the early stages of the season, and he was especially encouraged by the 14 offensive rebounds his guys pulled down.
Nikola Vucevic led the way for the Magic, scoring 21 points (8-17 FGA’s) and grabbing 13 rebounds in 34 minutes. Vucevic responded after going 1 for 13 from the field in Toronto Monday night, a game in which he was on the bench for the majority of the fourth quarter.
“One for thirteen, that’s not really who I’ve been throughout my career,” Vucevic told reporters in the locker room after the game. “I’m glad I was able to bounce back and have a good game (and help us win).”
The Magic got off to a very sluggish start to the game. They were charged with a defensive three-second call on their first defensive possession, and then threw the outlet pass away following their first defensive rebound of the contest.
Offensively, the Magic did exactly what Coach Clifford wanted them to avoid doing, which was taking it to the rim and challenging New York starting center Mitchell Robinson. Robinson erased back-to-back Orlando shot attempts in the paint within the game’s first two minutes.
Orlando did get a welcomed lift off their bench from Mohamed Bamba, who scored seven points in the game’s opening half (he finished with nine). Bamba started his night off with an easy finish facilitated by a lob from Terrence Ross. He then proceeded to knock-down an elbow-extended jumper, followed by a three-point attempt from the top of the key.
Overall as a team, the Magic again shot poorly from the field in the first quarter (36%). However, the Knicks didn’t exactly light the score up either and were unable to create any distance between themselves and Orlando.
They did get a really nice opening quarter contribution from reserve guard Frank Ntilikina, who scored all seven of his points in the first - including this heave that beat the horn to end the period.
Evan Fournier enjoyed a modestly nice offensive flurry with just over five minutes remaining in the first half to give Orlando a brief lead. He got a four-foot floater to drop, then followed that with a three-pointer from the wing (and two more free throws a few possessions later).
But it was clear in the first half that the offense was still very much stuck in mud. The ball wasn’t moving particularly well. Every pass side-to-side seemed difficult to make (and I don’t think it was because of the Knicks defense).
Orlando was only able to muster 42 points (33% field goal percentage) in the first half against a bad New York team and things looked bleak.
And then everything changed in the third quarter. The Magic noticeably played with a much greater purpose to begin the second half, immediately jumping out on a 7-0 third quarter run (fueled by two Jonathan Isaac jumpers). In fact, Orlando went on to score 21 of the first 28 points in the quarter, hitting 9 of 12 field goal attempts to begin the half.
A Markelle Fultz 15-foot jump shot with just under four minutes remaining in the third quarter gave Orlando a double-digit lead.
Kevin Knox connected on back-to-back outside shots amidst an 8-0 late third quarter Knicks run, which forced Clifford to burn a timeout so his team could re-group.
All in all, Orlando scored 32 third quarter points, their highest output in any quarter this season.
Unfortunately, Orlando’s bench gave away the team’s lead rather quickly in the fourth quarter. The second unit played poorly for most of the evening. By the time Clifford got his starters back in the game (probably earlier than he anticipated doing), the Knicks had taken a lead - stemming from a Bobby Portis corner “three”.
Orlando regained the lead midway through the game’s final session, creating some cushion for themselves after a huge Aaron Gordon three-point make. The possession was stalling as Vucevic was working to back-down the smaller Portis. When a double-team eventually came, Vucevic found Gordon on the wing as the shot-clock was winding down.
Another corner three from Gordon gave Orlando enough to finish off the Knicks in what amounted to a Magic/Knicks game from the Shaq/Ewing era - kind of ugly.
“It was a much better half, both from the physicality we had on the glass, and also that was our best stretch of ball movement this year,” Clifford said after the game. “We did some good things. That’s two good wins at home, we’ll try to get better tomorrow and play even better on Friday.”
Julius Randle led the Knicks with 16 points, 10 rebounds, and 7 assists in 37 minutes.
Gordon scored 10 of Orlando’s last 14 points, including a rim-rocking breakaway dunk that sent fans at the Amway Center home in a great mood.
Orlando’s team defense kept them in the game long enough to allow them to find their offense before it was too late against the Knicks.
But they will have to play with more sharpness offensively when they take the floor again, which will happen Friday night against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks.