The Magic came into tonight’s contest riding a two-game winning streak and full of confidence. On the second night of a road back-to-back against the Wizards, the hope was that the team would extend their early season success to a 3-0 start for just the fourth time in franchise history. The absence of Russell Westbrook, out under the auspice of rest, seemingly boded well for Orlando in this endeavor, but it was a prophetic vision they put to some test. A lack of early urgency and energy left the side staring down the barrel of an enormous deficit, but it was one they were ultimately able to overcome thanks to some strong play down the stretch. Let’s break it down.
Orlando struggled to get early stops, with the Wizards using swift passing sequences and aggressive penetration by the guards to generate easy baskets. Conversely, the Magic were a little loose with the ball in hand, with some early turnovers and ill-advised attempts contributing to the ten-point hole the team found itself in as the quarter reached its midpoint. The make-or-miss nature of the game continued as the reserves started to enter the fray; thankfully for the Magic this group — led again by the flame-throwing Terrence Ross — brought some offensive fluency as they steadily chipped away at the deficit. When the period ended it was 35-29 in favour of Washington.
The Ross explosion continued in the second quarter, with the shooter getting well and truly loose. Long bombs and trips to the charity stripe continued largely unabated, including the second occurrence for the game of his specialty: drawing a shooting foul from behind the arc. He had 19 points when he checked out for the half, with his contributions almost single-handedly dragging the Magic back into the contest. Some energetic defense by Michael Carter-Williams and Khem Birch, and later a sublime block from a rotating Dwayne Bacon, steadied things a little at the other end, allowing Orlando to steadily reign in the fast-starting Wizards.
When the teams went back to the locker room for the half-time oranges it was the Magic in the lead, up 62-60 despite shooting just 41.9% from the floor as a team. They made up for this by generating an avalanche of free throw attempts: 21 total that they converted into 20 points (compared to the 3 of 4 made by the Wizards). In fact, if it wasn’t for wonky perimeter defense that seemed to continually gift the opposition wide open driving lanes to the hoop, the margin might have been significantly larger. Washington made the most of this leaky guard containment, shooting 56.5% from the field and an absurd 17 of 22 in the painted area (77.3%) on their way to 34 first-half points inside.
Outside of the Ross explosion Orlando were leaning on Markelle Fultz, who combined a pair of triples with some bullying forays to the rim on his way to 12 points at the main break, while Washington were led by the starting backcourt duo of Bradley Beal and Raul Neto, who combined for 23 points and 6 assists despite being ice-cold from deep.
Unfortunately for the Magic, the third quarter opened much like the first, with the starters getting smoked on the back of sieve-like perimeter containment and asynchronous offense. The Wizards put together an 18-6 run across the frame’s opening six minutes that eventually sent Orlando scrambling to the bench to regroup. In some ways the Magic were actually fortunate during this sequence, with Washington missing a handful of wide open threes and lay-ins at the hoop that had the potential to blow the game wide open. Despite its limitations as a statistic, the box score plus/minus at this stage was a pretty accurate summation of where the game stood: Orlando’s starting unit all sat within a range of -13 to -22. As a unit they were brutal.
Head coach Steve Clifford initially stayed with the starting unit coming out of the breather, but after a poor inbounds play gifted the Wizards a layup at the other end a change was made. In came Ross and Chuma Okeke to once again provide a spark, but capturing the flame was proving elusive. Awkward turnovers continued to fuel opportunities for the Wizards at the other end, and a second consecutive uncontested dunk to Thomas Bryant sent both sides back to a time-out huddle. It was 86-75 Washington’s way, and the game was starting to look like it might be slipping away for the Magic.
With the energy levels obviously sagging Orlando turned to an all-bench unit, but many of the same difficulties continued unabated. The offense was largely unable to generate clean looks, and more than once the team resorted to simplistic sequences that featured little passing or purposeful movement. The defense also struggled to establish a foothold, giving up the final six points of the quarter as they went into the final frame down 94-77. If there was to be any chance for the Magic things needed to shift immediately.
A quick flurry to open the fourth quarter was just the change in momentum needed to again make this contest interesting. Cole Anthony was the primary instigator, getting to the line, making energetic hustle plays at both ends, and finding teammates in scoring positions. Carter-Williams was also a key cog during the sequence, with some neat finishes and smart hockey assist supplementing his rookie backcourt partner’s play. The 8-0 spurt shrunk the lead to single digits, 94-85 with 9:57 left to play.
Orlando’s bench mob sliced the deficit all the way to three points on the back of a smooth Ross triple, part of a larger 19-5 run. With the game winding into its final minutes many of the starters began to check back in, but the reserves had more than done their job. Instead of merely keeping the team afloat the second unit had seized the ascendancy, giving the team a genuine chance to win a game they had long looked out of.
Triples to Evan Fournier and Nikola Vucevic, along with some opportunistic transition play from Fultz helped the Magic keep pace, and the team went into the final 2:57 down just one point, 107-106, and with a chance to take the lead on the back of a pair of Fournier free throws. That they did, but it was a relatively short advantage. The Wizards got three straight buckets at the hoop — a pair of finishes by Thomas Bryant and an almost straight-line drive by Neto — while Orlando pitched the ball to Vucevic who was bested in a one-on-one post duel with Bryant. A timeout sent both teams back to the benches with just 59.8 seconds left.
Coming out of the huddle the Magic turned first to Fultz, who converted a sublime incision into the lane thanks to some deft footwork, before wrangling a Davis Bertans miss and settling in for a slow half court possession. They again went back to Vooch in his one-on-one matchup, clearing space for the big man and being rewarded with a nice scoop layup out of the isolation sequence. A couple of tough contests on Beal shot attempts in the dying stages was enough to seal the miracle comeback, with the Magic appropriately icing the game at the free throw line where they shot an almost unfathomable 39-40 on the night. Game. Set. Match.
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: Terrence Ross — Let’s be clear: without the Human Torch’s first half explosion the Magic wouldn’t have stood a chance. Although he cooled off in the second half he remained a constant threat, and his mere presence eventually provided other teammates with some space to work. 26 points, 4 triples, and a perfect 8-8 from the line.
Second star: Markelle Fultz — For the second night in a row Fultz made some huge plays down the stretch that helped to seal the W for the Magic. However, he was consistently solid even among a starting unit that was outplayed until the very end, posting a career-high 26 points on the back of aggressive dribble penetration and opportunistic transition hunting. He continues to blossom.
Third star: Cole Anthony — 12 points, 7 rebounds and 3 assists in just 19 minutes was undoubtedly a cameo that helped Orlando steal this one. He didn’t shoot the ball fantastically, but emerged as an effective contributor in other interesting ways, including as a relentless offensive glass presence and someone able to draw contact and generate free throw attempts. That he’s already an entrenched part of the rotation speaks to both his potential and poise.
The Magic will look to continue their winning ways on Wednesday in Oklahoma City, where 72-0 remains in play. Let’s go!