And we’re back. Bubble basketball got underway for the Magic today, with an important matchup against the Nets of Brooklyn — their primary foe for the seventh seed — the opening game on the schedule.
The first few minutes of returned Magic basketball were, to put it kindly, pretty rusty. They had trouble stopping the Nets from getting wherever they wanted, with the guards failing to restrict the point of attack on the perimeter and Orlando’s drop coverage struggling to meaningfully contest the ensuing shots in the paint. Brooklyn hit 7 of their first 9 from the field, racing out to a 16-8 lead and forcing the first Clifford-called timeout of the restart.
The Magic pick-and-roll defense is struggling right now. Ennis leaves too early worried about Garret Temple at the above the break three and before Vucevic can recover. Great pass from LeVert pic.twitter.com/Bobf5n6wSL— Mo Dakhil (@MoDakhil_NBA) July 31, 2020
The Magic were able to get back into it over the next few minutes, almost exclusively on the back of their offense. There were some pretty sequences that led to baskets, including short hooks for Nikola Vucevic, buckets at the basket for James Ennis and Evan Fournier, and a corner triple for DJ Augustin. When Terrence Ross also connected from deep the early deficit had been wiped away entirely, the action tied at 27.
The most inspiring sequence of the first quarter came when the reserves took over, with Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz, both on a minutes restriction, combining to set the hearts of Magic fans aflutter. Firstly, Isaac jammed Garrett Temple on the perimeter, hounding him all the way to the basket and ultimately smothering his shot attempt. Fultz collected the rebound and immediately pushed out into transition, staccato stutter-stepping his way to a layup at the hoop. The pair also showed nice chemistry elsewhere, a pleasing sign for the current rotational alignment. When the siren sounded for the end of the quarter the game had largely stabilized, the Nets holding a slim lead, 39-36.
Great immediate impact from Isaacs and Fultz. Defensively, Isaacs fights over the top of the screen, gets his hands in the passing lane for a deflection and then contests Temple's drive. Then Fultz grabs the rebound and goes coast to coast for bucket. pic.twitter.com/5dAAOqSfjH— Mo Dakhil (@MoDakhil_NBA) July 31, 2020
After the teams combined for 75 first quarter points — each on collective field goal percentages in excess of 60% — things started to cool off some. The game turned into an arm wrestle, with the two sides largely trading chances and baskets. For the Magic, the defensive activity was slightly improved, with less wide open jumpers surrendered and greater resistance on sequences when the Nets drove into the paint. Orlando were eventually able to stake a lead, first off a Michael Carter-Williams triple, and then from a strong driving finish by Ennis. It put the Magic up three, and sent the Nets scrambling to the bench on a timeout.
With most of the starters checked back in Orlando were able to steadily stretch their advantage. Gordon and Fournier both got mid-range jumpers to go on the back of fluid passing sequences, while purposeful off-ball cutting kept the Brooklyn defense working overtime. Fournier and Ennis both shook free for triples, at which point the floodgates started to open. Vucevic took advantage of a mismatch for a neat hook, Gordon bullied his way to the hoop for a dunk, and Fournier drilled his second long range bomb of the quarter. When Vooch found Augustin cutting with a beautiful bounce pass it was a 13 point Magic advantage, a number that only shrunk on a lucky last-second Nets bucket. Orlando closed the quarter on a decisive run, ultimately going into the halftime break up 70-59.
The tone established at the end of the first half continued through the start of the second, with the Magic quickly pressing their advantage. The two-man game with Vucevic and Fournier was nigh on unstoppable, generating 8 quick points on a series of long bombs that pushed Orlando’s lead out to 19. The defensive resistance inside was also much stronger, forcing the Nets to rely on jump shots to keep the scoreboard ticking over. Fournier continued his assault as the quarter wound on, and when combined with some free throws generated by aggressive play from Ennis and Gordon the lead ballooned to 25.
At this point it would be fair to say that much of the sting was out of the game. The reserves checked in and continued the energetic and deliberate play; Isaac tore down an offensive board he had no right to for a putback, which MCW followed up with a smooth and-one sequence. A series of wonderful defensive rotations took away Brooklyn’s last chance of the quarter, locking in a 29 point lead for the Magic going into the final term.
The fourth quarter was a formality, although there were still some points worth noting for the Magic. Fultz and Isaac continued to menace the opposition, combining to force turnovers at one end and finishing in transition at the other. Isaac also drilled a number of long-range makes, a particularly pleasing outcome for a team with so much staked on his development. Mo Bamba finally got some minutes, Gary Clark drilled a smooth triple on his first attempt, and MCW maintained his crown as Orlando’s intensity king, picking up a technical foul for arguing a call with an almost 30 point lead and eventually fouling out. Some sloppy play in the closing minutes saw the lead shrink, with Clifford eventually making the call to re-insert the starters. It wasn’t a good look for the reserve unit, but it was ultimately too little too late for the Nets and Orlando closed the game up by 10, 128-118.
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: Evan Fournier — continued his career-best form by tearing the game apart across the end of the second and start of the third. Finished with 24 points on 10-15 shooting (including 3-6 from downtown), chipping in 5 assists for good measure.
Second star: Nikola Vucevic — wasn’t able to knock down some open looks from deep early, and struggled defending inside thanks to some porous perimeter defense. However, he found a rhythm as the game continued, operating as the team’s offensive fulcrum in the way we’ve grown accustomed to over the last 24 months. 22, 7 and 5 on 8-12 shooting for the night.
Third star: Khem Birch — shout out to the big maple for setting a season high. He stole Mo Bamba’s backup minutes and then immediately proved it a good decision, racking up 12 points, 4 rebounds and 5 assists along with a steal and 2 blocks. Most importantly, he stemmed the flow of Brooklyn points in the paint, working hard to challenge and alter such shot attempts.
One game, one win. With that they leapfrog Brooklyn for the seventh seed, a position they’ll be very keen to hold onto. The journey continues against the Kings on Sunday.