On Friday night the Magic made their way to Minnesota for a return date against the Timberwolves. Just one week after a high-scoring affair against the same side, Orlando were confronted with a slightly more difficult equation, with key guard Evan Fournier out as a result of a right elbow injury. Desperate to snap a three-game losing streak, a road win was required to get the team once again heading in the right direction.
The pace was frantic in the game’s opening minutes, with both sides hunting out transition opportunities and getting up attempts early in the shot clock. Markelle Fultz was particularly aggressive, travelling south with speed when the opportunity presented itself and generally working to attack the painted area. Things did eventually slow down, and Orlando were able to lean on Vucevic in the halfcourt to keep the scoreboard ticking over. However, the defense was noticeably lethargic, with Minnesota finding driving lanes wide open and being met with very little resistance at the hoop. Thankfully, some nice shot-making from Fultz in the mid-range allowed the Magic to play from in front, up 22-16 when a wave of reserves entered the game with three minutes and change remaining in the first.
The Timberwolves found their first adjustment of the game at this point, shifting to a smaller lineup with James Johnson at center. It worked, with the veteran forward getting a pair of wide-open looks from the perimeter to go down. Each time closed the gap to a single basket, but the Magic countered with a long-range make of their own from Mo Bamba and further mid-range success from Terrence Ross and Michael Carter-Williams. With a quarter in the books it was 29-24, Orlando’s way.
The early stages of the second quarter saw both Aaron Gordon and D’Angelo Russell open their personal accounts, with the pair generating points for their respective sides via made baskets and effective passing. Interestingly, this stretch of the game also featured a coaching decision some have clamoured for for some time: a small ball configuration with AG at center. It wasn’t immediately successful defensively, with the Timberwolves crashing the offensive boards and generating points in the paint, but with the ball in hand it generated some interesting looks in space with Gordon as a facilitator up high. The most worrying takeaway from the experiment? The fact that it came about because of another early Bamba benching, with the sophomore big getting burned in his five short minutes of court time.
The game entered a period of relative stalemate over the next few minutes, with neither side able to seize the ascendancy. Baskets were traded, with three-pointers to Ross and MCW and a pair of three-point plays to DJ Augustin and Vooch helping the Magic make up for the underwhelming defense at the other end. Fultz helped stake the Magic once more to a lead as he continued to attack the heart of the opposition’s defense, and with less than ninety seconds in the half the dam began to burst. Ross drilled a pretty pull-up jumper, giving him 12 first half points. Augustin splashed a corner three of a swift passing sequence. And Vucevic finished things with a final possession lay-up, pushing his personal tally to 14 and 6 and the Magic’s lead to double figures at the half, up 65-55. The shooting numbers were getting it done, with the team sitting at 60.5% from the field, 50.0% from deep on 14 attempts, and perfect from the line.
Gordon got the Magic’s second half off to a quick start, with a clean block fueling a fast-paced and pretty hesitation dribble and bucket at the rim. Fultz was also soon in on the act, first with a steal leading to a layup lob to a streaking Wes Iwundu and then with another mid-range jumper that found the bottom of the net. This make forced Minnesota into an early timeout, the cap on a 13-0 run that bridged the end of the second and start of the third.
When Iwundu drilled a pull-up jumper from the mid-range the lead had swelled to 18, and the blowout threatened. Malik Beasley briefly settled things for Minnesota when he took advantage of the Magic’s poor interior defense, first by throwing down a vicious dunk and then slicing through the lane for a layup. Orlando, however, were ultimately able to settle, playing passable defense and then cashing in a number of shots in the paint. In a recurring theme for the night Fultz was the straw that stirred the drink, finishing tough drives, getting to the line, and finding teammates with table-setting passes, including Vooch for a layup on a beautiful little drop pass in traffic. The lead continued to hover around 20 points for the remainder of the quarter before settling in at a 102-83 Magic advantage entering the final intermission.
The fourth quarter never really rose to any great heights, with Orlando continuing to score the ball easily and doing enough to keep Minnesota at a distance. The lead shrunk to just 10 with 1:44 to play, but by then the sting was out of the game and the result long since decided. When the final siren sounded the Magic had recorded a comfortable 132-118 victory, fueled by 60.7% from the field, 31 free throw attempts, and 68 total points in the paint. The defense wasn’t great, but it ultimately didn’t have to be. The main takeaway that the team will be hoping for is a clean bill of health for coach Steve Clifford, who exited the game early and was ultimately taken to hospital for precautionary tests. Let’s keep the collective fingers crossed.
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: Markelle Fultz — the young point guard was dynamic tonight, seeing more of the ball and shouldering a playmaking burden with Fournier on the shelf. He capitalised, putting up 24 (on an absurd 11-14 from the field), 5 assists, and 5 rebounds, along with a steal and a block for good measure. He was sublime.
Second star: Michael Carter-Williams — was his usual defensive nuisance, but also put up a season-high 17 points on 6-7 shooting from the field. In addition, he chipped in 5 assists, 2 rebounds and a steal, while providing energy and hustle on every possession. Was the best of a productive bench mob.
Third star: Nikola Vucevic — 28 points, 12 rebounds and 4 assists makes for a nice stat line, and it was his play inside that powered the Magic’s offensive dominance in the paint. It’s enough to overlook his less than stellar defense on some sequences.
With both Brooklyn and Washington winning tonight Orlando’s victory was simply a case of holding serve. With a lead in the standings over the Wizards and an easier remaining schedule than the Nets, the Magic are still likely in the box seat for the seventh seed. A tough match up on Sunday against the Rockets awaits.