Despite the young nature of the season so far, tonight’s match up against the Thunder represented a chance for the Magic to make history. Orlando entered the tilt against their Western Conference foe seeking the first 4-0 start since the team sprung into existence, while big man Nikola Vucevic needed only a handful of baskets to move into first place on the franchise’s list of all-time made field goals. While the latter of those moments was assured before the first quarter ended, the latter took considerably more time to come to fruition. Still, the Magic did enough late to secure the slice of franchise history, overcoming a plucky Thunder squad and retaining their status as one of only two currently undefeated teams.
The opening minutes revealed much about how the Magic would approach the contest. With Oklahoma both undermanned and undersized Orlando demonstrated their intent to attack the hoop, with each possession predicated on players taking advantage of the lack of resistance offered in the paint. Aaron Gordon got that ball rolling with three successive coast-to-coast forays after cleaning the defensive glass, with Markelle Fultz and Dwayne Bacon following in kind when the opportunity presented itself. 8 of the Magic’s first 10 made baskets came within three feet of the rim, indicating just how fruitful this early penetration was proving to be.
Aaron Gordon breaks down the defense with a euro but a terrific no-look find from Markelle Fultz gets Vucevic the three. pic.twitter.com/8aXw60WhWV— DoYouBelieveinMagic (@DYBinMagic) December 30, 2020
Unfortunately for Orlando, their own interior defense was just as putrid as their opponent’s. Time and time again the team failed to corral the pick and roll against a stretched out Thunder, leading to a number of minimally contested finishes at the hoop. Things began to settle down in this regard when the second unit checked in, courtesy of some great defensive energy from Chuma Okeke and Michael Carter-Williams and a general rise in the team’s intensity at this end of the floor. A few timely buckets allowed the Magic to create a small cushion as the quarter came to an end, up 34-27 on the back of a 62.5% conversion rate from the floor.
Terrific bounce pass from MCW to Khem Birch who finishes with the slam. pic.twitter.com/OR18IfqaKM— DoYouBelieveinMagic (@DYBinMagic) December 30, 2020
Points were difficult to come by for Orlando in the opening minutes of the second quarter, with jump shots refusing to go down and the more perimeter-focused offense failing to produce a high level of results. The Thunder were able to capitalize on this sluggishness, reclaiming the lead on a Hamadou Diallo jumper before Gordon nudged the Magic back ahead, 40-39, by converting a difficult lob pass from Cole Anthony.
Fingertip finish from Aaron Gordon off of Cole Anthony's lob in the PnR.— DoYouBelieveinMagic (@DYBinMagic) December 30, 2020
Thus far this season, the Magic have been 24 points better than their opponents per 100 possessions with Anthony on the floor according to @cleantheglass. pic.twitter.com/qVUS3j2vka
Coming out of a time out the Magic were able to relocate their scoring touch, primarily by again prioritizing playing from the inside. It started with Gordon finding Terrence Ross for a sweet finish off a back-door cut, and was supplemented in short order by each of Anthony, Bacon and Vucevic. This helped to swell the lead back to 8 points, 51-43, before the starters — with Okeke in Gordon’s place, checking back in with just over 4 minutes remaining. The two teams largely traded chances over the final stretch of the first half, before a pair of strong drives for the Thunder gave them the final two baskets of the quarter and shrunk Orlando’s lead to just 60-56 at the main break.
Based on the boxscore numbers, Orlando’s advantage at the break probably should have been greater. As a team they shot more accurately from the field (52.2% to 48.9%), had almost twice as many free throw attempts (9 to 5), and were winning the turnover battle (5 to 8). The Magic had generated more assists, more steals, more fastbreak points, and more buckets in the paint, and it was still painfully obvious that the Thunder had no one who could handle Vucevic inside or out. However, there were too many stretches where both the energy and the execution seemed to be lacking, a factor which would have to swing in the second half if they were to commandingly put this one away.
The scrappy nature of the affair continued through the third quarter, with the Magic again failing to seize the ascendancy. Although the defensive effort was better the team was still making mistakes at that end, either over-rotating or failing to close out with impact. This meant that the Thunder were able to keep the scoreboard ticking over, an outcome that was almost single-handedly being matched by Vucevic. He was basically unstoppable on offense, establishing deep position in the paint, making clean finishes at the rim, and whipping the ball with precision to open shooters when the opportunity presented itself. He had 9 points and 2 assists in the quarter, and could have had more of each if teammates had done a more effective job of finishing.
Despite this dominance at the center position, Orlando just couldn’t seem to pull away from the plucky Thunder. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander hit a number of big shots during the quarter, giving him 17 points on just 8 shots at this stage, and every time the Magic got one of their own to go Oklahoma City were seemingly able to get a contribution from someone else. When the siren sounded Orlando were only a missed Lu Dort triple away from going into the final period trailing, clinging to an 87-85 lead as the game entered the final twelve minutes.
From the outset it was clear that the fourth quarter would be a more physical affair, with both teams doing more to pack the painted area and the defensive intensity being dialed up a notch. Both teams were able to generate free throw chances on the back of incisive drives, but it was ultimately the Magic’s strong finishing inside that allowed them to steady. Bacon was aggressive in driving to the hoop, dropping in a series of sweet finishes in the quarter’s opening minutes and buoying the offense while Vucevic got a breather and Terrence Ross rested a tweaked hamstring. When Carter-Williams put back Bacon’s first miss of the game — a corner three — it was 99-91 Orlando.
SGA continued to pile up buckets for the Thunder, and in turn the Magic went consistently to the man in the middle. The team ran basically every possession through the big guy in the game’s final seven minutes, and he responded as required. He followed a short hook with a smooth baseline jumper, before titling the floor with a cross court pass that allowed MCW to take advantage of space. His gravity on a pick and subsequent roll again opened up space, this time for Evan Fournier to find Fultz for a wide open triple. Moments later Vooch again showed off his passing vision, whipping a pass to a spotting-up Ross who shook the closing defender on his way to a mid-range pull up. When the Human Torch got an elbow jumper to go on Orlando’s next possession the lead had swelled to 10 and the game was, for all intents and purposes, sealed.
The final few minutes played out without too much intrigue, with a limping Ross perhaps the biggest question mark moving forward. For now, the Magic will celebrate the best regular season start in franchise history, advancing to 4-0 courtesy of a 118-107 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: Nikola Vucevic — for much of the night he was seemingly the only Magic player who could be counted on with the ball in hand. He put up an efficient 28, 10 and 5 on the night, going 12-18 from the field and 3-4 from deep in leading the Magic to their best ever start to a season on the same night he became the franchise leader in field goals made. We won’t even mention the fact that Isaiah Roby 187d him during the fourth quarter.
Second star: Dwayne Bacon — a sizzling cameo from the wing thrust into a starting role, who made his first 8 shots from the field on his way to 18 points and 8 rebounds. He was also consistently active on the defensive end, emerging as the most locked-in starter at that end of the court.
Third star: Michael Carter-Williams — his boxscore contributions don’t really jump out — 4 points, 8 rebounds, 2 assists and a steal — but his fingerprints are all over this win. The intensity he brought to the defensive end helped to somewhat revitalise the moribund Magic resistance, while his play on offense was suitably purposeful and direct. It’s becoming routine at this stage, but he’s proven himself consistently capable of positively influencing any game in a multitude of ways.
4 down, 68 to go. 72-0 here we come!