In a night with so many stories — Orlando’s win over one of the league’s elite; Aaron Gordon’s assertiveness; Wes Iwundu’s scoring outburst; the eye-catching debuts of BJ Johnson and Gary Clark — there was one that undoubtedly shone brightest of all: Markelle Fultz.
The young point guard turned in the defining performance of his short career-to-date, racking up a triple-double and taking over in the clutch as the injury-ravaged Magic beat LeBron and the Lakers on their own homecourt in a mid-week thriller.
The statistics alone make for fine reading: 33 minutes on the night, a career-high and six more than his average. 21 points on 9-for-19 shooting. 11 rebounds and a steal. 10 assists with just one solitary turnover. What they can’t capture however, is the poise, the acuity, and the dynamic ability that he demonstrated down the stretch. Fultz was electric, either reading the play and taking what was available, or simply manufacturing an outcome from seemingly nothing with individual brilliance. He had a direct hand in seven of Orlando’s final eight points, ensuring that the side was able to close out a tight one in a game very few expected them to even have a chance in.
The current road trip’s first two games both provoked lengthy analyses of their respective final minutes, with a focus on the decision-making and execution that determined the outcome in each. We could certainly do the same again here, but considering the circumstances, it seems more appropriate to celebrate the efforts of Orlando’s budding star. Fultz was fantastic throughout the game, but it was in the closing sixty seconds that he thrust his name into the national spotlight. Let’s look at the cherry he placed atop his triple-double cake.
55.9 seconds remain: The one where Fultz finds Vucevic for a three-pointer
This possession begins when Fultz collects the ball in the backcourt, the Magic leading by just one and a minute and change left in the game. As he brings the ball over halfcourt the team settles into some 1-5 side pick-and-roll action, with everyone else stretching the floor and creating space for Fultz and Nikola Vucevic to work.
The play unfolds in a relatively simple manner for Orlando. L.A.’s defenders, JaVale McGee and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, are undone by a lack of communication. When McGee drops to meet the dribble heading baseline he’s expecting Caldwell-Pope to slide out and cover the shooter. This doesn’t happen and Fultz recognizes the mistake; he keeps KCP on his hip, draws him a further step out of position with an extra dribble, and then drops a perfect pass into Vooch’s waiting hands. With plenty of time and space the big man calmly drills the triple, and the Magic have a two-possession lead.
In the moment this might seem like a pretty pedestrian play, one where Fultz’s contribution is overshadowed by Vucevic’s big make. But it shouldn’t be. The point guard made a lightning quick read of a faltering defense, exacerbating the opposition’s mistake and setting his teammate up perfectly. Add to this the context — the final minute of a pulsating game against one of the best teams on one of the biggest stages — and it becomes evident just how smart a play it was by the 21 year old.
38.6 seconds remain: The one where Fultz shakes McGee on his way to the hoop
Orlando get the ball back on their next possession with a two-point lead, courtesy of a McGee flush at the other end. The team dials up the exact same action as the previous sequence, with Fultz and Vucevic settling again into a side-pick and roll. The Lakers clearly talked this one through in the last huddle, however, and when Orlando’s ball handler again drives baseline and Vooch pops to the perimeter Caldwell-Pope sticks to the big man like glue.
As soon as Fultz recognizes that he’s now matched up one-on-one with McGee he doesn’t hesitate. He drives hard towards the post, making forceful shoulder contact before rolling through into a back-down position. You can see L.A.’s center ground his feet and settle into the contest, which Fultz immediately takes advantage of. Like quicksilver he spins out and to his left, generating more than a step’s worth of distance and sealing his defender behind him. From there, all he needs is one more dribble before he finishes with blistering speed on an up-and-under before the help defense can even react. Magic by four.
It’s another great moment in a game that was filled with them for the young guard. With Orlando returning to the same play the defense would have been confident in their ability this time to get a stop. Instead, McGee was left in the dust and made to look like a liability by Fultz, who this time leaned on his impressive individual talents to drive the Magic into a winning position. It’s the type of performance that would be striking from anyone, let alone a player whose entire career was seemingly in limbo less than twelve months ago.
15.4 seconds remain: There one where, for a night, Fultz dethrones the King
At this point of the game most in attendance and watching at home probably felt that there was an inevitability to the outcome — surely LeBron and the limelight Lakers would write the perfect Hollywood ending by completing their comeback. James was certainly of that thought, having just nailed an off-balance three that cut the deficit to a single point. No one would have been shocked if the Magic — road-weary, understrength and awed by the moment — faltered in the final seconds.
With the game in the balance, the Magic go back to the well once again. However, this time a surprise awaits them: a defensive adjustment from the Lakers that brings LeBron himself into the play, matched up ostensibly as the center guarding Vucevic. This is only momentary, though, as Caldwell-Pope takes the screening action out of the play by icing Fultz hard and then jumping out on a switch to Vooch. This leaves the Magic’s man-of-the-moment staring at one of the greatest ever to lace them up, isolated against the King himself in a play that will effectively decide the game.
In a wildly impressive display of basketball instincts, Fultz strikes immediately. The second that KCP rotates away and turns his head the Magic guard drives into the created space, crossing hard to his right and rocketing into the lane. LeBron is good enough to stick with him, and Fultz once again seeks out contact so as to roll into a post-up position. This is where he feels James lose touch as he’s scrambling back to cover this, so the point guard reverses course with a spin move and generates a full step of separation that he’ll soon use to devastating effect. He employs Vucevic’s roll to the hoop as a makeshift screen, looping around to the right hand side of the key as he prepares to finish. He plants his feet hard, braces for contact as he pushes himself towards the hoop, and, thanks to his speed, drops in a soft four-foot bank shot before the defense can even rotate to help. The lead is now three, and one final defensive stop on the next possession essentially seals the result for the Magic.
It’s a moment of individual brilliance, mercurial athleticism, and veteran-like composure, a perfect encapsulation of Fultz in his most impressive moments. The appearance of perhaps the second-best ever to lace them up as his primary defender doesn’t faze him, and he accepts the challenge in a way that belies his youthful inexperience.
It’s a huge bucket in a huge moment.
On any normal night there were a number of elements that could have been the feel-good takeaway for the Magic coming out of this one. Fultz was able to stand out amongst this crowd though, first with his fantastic general play throughout and finally with his sublime performance in the clutch. It’s the type of game that reminds everyone of exactly why he was considered an elite talent coming out of college only a few short years ago.
Fultz quarterbacked three final-minute possessions against one of the league’s elite sides, producing under extreme pressure in each moment. In fact, with the game on the line he was the only Magic player to even touch the ball on two of these sequences, shouldering the entirety of the responsibility that comes with such decision-making and then decisively delivering for his team. This type of production would be admirable under any circumstances; that he’s achieving it in what is essentially the first consistent playing time of his career is genuinely impressive.
Markelle made impactful contributions and generated a fistful of highlight plays across the first forty-seven minutes of this contest. However, it was his performance in the final sixty seconds that should most excite Magic fans. During this closing stretch, Fultz emphatically hammered home the fact that Orlando potentially have a major talent on their hands, the type that a franchise could build around.
Let’s hope it’s potential that he’s one day able to fully realize. From everything we saw last night, Fultz is well on his way.