The NBA regular season is an 82-game grind, with numerous opportunities for a team to rebound from any one poor performance. Coming into this one the Magic were keen to do just that, with the sting of their recent meltdown in Phoenix still fresh. Bolstering their efforts were the returns of Aaron Gordon and DJ Augustin, both of whom were able to overcome their lingering injuries. The reinsertion of AG into the rotation would prove absolutely essential.
Orlando started particularly slowly at both ends of the court, with the offense again struggling to exhibit any fluency and the defense looking strained. Of particular note was the trouble that Khem Birch was having covering Nemanja Bjelica, who torched the makeshift four both inside and out on his way to 12 quick points. Thankfully an early Clifford time out helped the team settle things down, and through a steady diet of Evan Fournier and Nikola Vucevic -- who combined for 19 or the Magic’s first 22 points -- the team surged into the lead.
As the quarter closed Orlando continued to make a lot of effort plays, the results for which were felt on the scoreboard. Birch and Mo Bamba took advantage of offensive rebounds, the team largely locked down the defensive boards, and players generated turnovers by staying active in the passing lanes. Heading into the first break the Magic had built an 8 point lead, up 33-25 on the back of more focused play and careful execution.
The bench-heavy unit that opened the second were able to do enough to maintain this advantage, primarily on the back of a pair of Wes Iwundu triples. The lead extended to 12 before a cold spell brought Vucevic and Markelle Fultz back into the game. This allowed the Magic to stabilize on offense, although the D emerged as a concern. Some lazy fouls put the Kings on the line, De’Aaron Fox started getting to the hoop at will, and Bjelica remained NBA Jam levels hot. When a Fox jumper cut the lead to 5 Orlando called time out.
Coming out of the huddle the Magic again righted the ship. Aron Gordon was aggressive, getting to the hoop and cutting with purpose. Fultz and Fournier were able to read the zone look that Sacramento employed, breaking it down and generating easy buckets for themselves and teammates. Even better, the defense locked in, walling off the key, rotating to shooters, and cleaning the boards. It took less than two minutes to snowball into a 12-0 run, with a late pair of Sacramento buckets bridging the gap to 13 at the half, 65-52.
All things considered it was a tremendous half for the Magic. Despite starting slow they set a season-high for points in the first (33), also going close to their previous high of 68 in a half. Vooch had a double-double before the oranges were served, Fournier had 15 and 5, while Gordon added 10 and Fultz 9 more. As a team they committed just 2 turnovers (compared to 7 for the Kings), while also recording a perfect 12-12 from the line while limiting their opponents to just 3 such attempts. It was high-percentage basketball, and a double-figure lead was the earned reward. Ultimately it was going to come down to whether or nor the Magic could handle Fox and Bjelica.
Unfortunately, the second half started poorly for Orlando, with the Kings closing to within 4 on the back of triples from Fox, Bjelica and Buddy Hield. An early time-out ensued, and once again the Magic were able to respond. Vucevic got back to the line for a pair. Fultz juked his way to the hoop and then immediately forced a turnover at the other end. When Vucevic got a short jumper to go the lead was back to double figures, and order was temporarily restored. Sacramento threatened again briefly with a series of jumpers, but some stellar defense from both Gordon and Vooch as well as a pair of decisive buckets from Orlando’s big man helped the Magic maintain their lead, up 78-69 as both teams went to a mid-quarter time out.
The back end of the third quarter became a grind, with a steady stream of fouls at both ends resulting in a parade to the respective charity stripes. Fournier, Fultz and Ross all managed to score themselves some freebies, but Marvin Bagley was able to almost singlehandedly keep the Kings in it. He took advantage of some sloppy interior defense to score in the paint on three separate occasions, also supplementing this with his own trip to the line. This play meant that when Orlando’s offense, as it is prone to do, turned into a pumpkin, Sacramento were able to strike. Hield drilled a three, stole the ball back on the next possession, and then found Trevor Ariza for a contested finish at the hoop that cut the Magic’s lead to just 1 at the final intermission, 86-85.
With the specter of the recent Suns loss haunting those Magic fans still awake, AG got to work. He scored on a mismatch against Cory Joseph in the post. He drilled a smooth looking jumper from 13 feet. He then attacked the hoop hard, eventually scoring on a put back after a handful of tries. Orlando may have been trouble containing Fox, but their recently returned forward was doing all he could to keep the team’s nose in front. A tough finish in transition from Iwundu the lead to 5, 96-91 with a shade over six minutes left.
The game’s closing stretch was seemingly defined by the Magic’s ability to do just enough. Fultz and Fournier both had some success putting the ball on the floor and going to the hoop, while Vucevic kept on plugging away inside and mopping up defensive rebounds. Fox and Bjelica continued to threaten, closing the gap to a single basket on multiple occasions, but it seemed like they weren’t going to find enough support to complete the comeback.
Turns out they didn’t need it. With 77 seconds left in the game Bjelica drilled a huge three out of a time out to slice the lead to 4. Fox got all the way to the hoop after the Kings forced a traveling violation from Vucevic and the lead was just 2. Fox then went to work again after a loose ball scramble gifted possession to Sacramento. He shook a pair of defenders on his way to the hoop, finishing at the rim and drawing a foul for good measure. All of a sudden the Kings were up by 1 and it looked like Phoenix all over again.
Thankfully, blessedly, luckily, it wasn’t to be. The Magic had a final possession with 15.8 left on the clock, and Clifford dialed up some trusty two-man action with Fournier and Vooch. Orlando’s shooting guard ultimately waved the screen away and drove to the hoop, rising for an off-kilter shot in traffic. At the last moment he changed his mind, slipping a push pass to an unsuspecting Gordon who managed to reel it in, turn to the rim, and get a short six-footer to go. He picked up a foul on his way, sank the free-throw, and Orlando’s lead was 2 with 1.1 to play. That’s what it would stay after a final Kings chance ended with a broken up alley-oop at the buzzer. The Magic are victors in Sacramento for the first time since 2016, sealing the deal with a 114-112 win.
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: Aaron Gordon — it’s likely that he shouldn’t even have been playing, but AG pushed through several lingering injuries on his way to a solid performance and the eventual game-winner. He racked up 19 and 9 to go along with one monstrous block and one tremendous finish.
Second star: Evan Fournier — Played an excellent game from start to finish and was instrumental in the win. Tallied 25 points and 6 assists, while also delivering a perfect 12-12 from the line. His buckets in the final minute allowed the Magic to hang on.
Third star: Nikola Vucevic — Was great early and okay late, putting up 26 points, 15 rebounds and 3 blocks in a workman-like performance.
Boy oh boy. The road trip is now a perfect 2 from 2 in terms of heart attack finishes. More importantly, the Magic square the ledger at 1 and 1. Onto LA, where the nightlife and a back-to-back against a pair of the Western Conference’s elite awaits.