The Magic entered Friday’s contest in Cleveland within striking distance of a .500 record, needing only to take care of a depleted Cavaliers lineup to square their season’s ledger. They were made to work for it, eventually securing the result despite a wayward offense and a lack of defensive intensity for much of the game.
Evan Fournier and Markelle Fultz, like the pair have recently done so frequently, ensured that Orlando were able to hang around early in this one. Fultz was aggressive from the opening possession, using dribble penetration to get into the heart of Cleveland’s defense and create clean looks for both himself and teammates. Fournier continued his hot shooting, nailing his first two three-point attempts and generating a pretty and-one opportunity when isolated against Darius Garland. The offense was hardly seamless, but the Magic were obviously making a concerted effort to get the ball to dangerous spots on the floor.
Despite the heavy lifting by the backcourt with the ball in hand, Orlando’s defense struggled to get stops or even make life tough for the opposition. Cleveland scored 12 of their first 21 points in the paint, including an uncontested dunk by Larry Nance Jr that capped a 7-0 Cavaliers run and forced a Steve Clifford timeout. Frustratingly, things didn’t get much better in this regard after further instructions. Cleveland continued to get into the lane with regularity, and it was only the ability of Aaron Gordon to keep the scoreboard ticking over by taking advantage of a size mismatch in the post that limited the margin. Ultimately the Magic surrendered 58% shooting and went into the first break down 25-24.
Orlando opened the second period by turning stops into points. By stymieing Cleveland on back-to-back possessions they were able to get two finishes at the hoop before the defense could set, further emphasising the importance of the defensive game. Once Terrence Ross got going -- three free throws, a triple from the top of the arc and a neat pull-up -- the Magic had rattled off a 19-6 run, turning a 6 point deficit into a 7 point lead. Mo Bamba and DJ Augustin helped maintain the momentum, with Bamba altering shots, containing Tristan Thompson and draining trail jumpers, and Augustin creating easy looks by pushing the pace in transition.
The back half of the second quarter largely sustained the status quo, with the starting lineup re-entering the fray and maintaining most of the lead that the bench unit had built. Fournier continued to hit shots, Fultz continued to get to the rim, and Jonathan Isaac continued to swat attempts. Worryingly, the lackadaisical defensive energy also continued, with Cleveland rediscovering their inside game and adding a handful more easy points in the paint. When the half closed the Magic’s lead had been cut to 5, a 52-47 advantage they would take into the main break.
Cleveland opened the third quarter on a tear, ripping off a 13-4 run that forced Orlando into an early time out. Collin Sexton did most of the damage offensively, drilling open shots and setting up teammates, but it was energetic defense that provided the opportunity. They blitzed screens and trapped sideline action, taking away the Magic’s rhythm and encouraging a lot of pointless dribbling and isolation basketball. The side had just two made field goals in the quarter’s first 7:56, a fruitless stretch that was part of a larger 18-8 run by Cleveland. And yet, Orlando were able to stay in it. They forced a few Cleveland turnovers, largely controlled the defensive boards, and made the opposition work for good looks. The team also found just enough in the way of offense that when the siren sounded the deficit was only two points, 70-68 in the Cavaliers’ favour.
Good time to light the Torch. pic.twitter.com/dR075th5jz— Orlando Magic (@OrlandoMagic) December 7, 2019
The back-and-forth nature of the contest continued in the fourth, with the two sides trading three-point makes through the opening stretch of the quarter. Neither team was able to seize the ascendancy, with Orlando benefiting from some poor finishing by the Cavaliers. When Isaac drilled a three from the left break the Magic found themselves up 84-81 as the game entered the final five minutes.
Thankfully, the Magic were able to close out an ugly game and secure the desired result. The defense stepped up down the stretch, with Isaac, Fournier and Khem Birch all recording monster blocks that allowed Orlando to keep their distance on the scoreboard. Fournier then iced it with a beautifully executed inbounds pass to a cutting Gordon (who popped free thanks to a wonderful Birch screen), a stuffed dunk pushing the margin to 5 and allowing the Magic to close the game at the line. When the dust settled it was 93-87 in favour of the good guys.
Orlando’s three stars
Hockey is a pretty great sport, so I thought I would steal one of its best little touches for my own game analysis: the three stars. Here is who caught my eye tonight.
First star: Evan Fournier — he’s been huge since Nikola Vucevic went down, and tonight he again lead the Magic even despite a dip in his previously scorching shooting numbers. He carried the team offensively in the first half, and then provided a cool head down the stretch as the team closed. Orlando don’t win this one without the man who should never be Googled.
Second star: Terrence Ross — like he did so frequently last season, the Human Torch caught fire for just long enough to deliver the Magic the offense they needed. 21 points, including 4 makes from distance, was enough to get the team over the line in an uglly contest.
Third star: Khem Birch — this might have been the Canadian’s best game of the season despite a slow start. His defense was great during the second half, as he finished with a busy line of 5 points, 7 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 blocks and a steal.
Mission accomplished. The Magic push their winning streak to 4 and their season record to .500, largely on the back of a lopsided free throw count they created with dribble penetration. The win comes ahead of a very tough upcoming slate of games, a stretch during which they’ll need to show more than they did tonight. Let’s hope the team is up to it.