All eyes will be on the Orlando Magic on Saturday night.
The NBA world will be watching to see what is expected to be James Harden’s debut with the Brooklyn Nets, for which the Magic are the unfortunate victims of thanks to the merciless scheduling Gods. And the stage certainly is set for the Magic to help make Harden, Kevin Durant and the Nets look like world beaters.
The Magic are:
1) Missing half of their team
2) On a four-game losing streak
3) Struggling offensively, having failed to reach 100 points in each of the last four games, while shooting 41% from the field and 26.9% from three
4) Playing on the second night of a back-to-back, with the only silver living being that the Magic starters played limited minutes thanks in part to the Celtics’ rout on Friday.
So, even if the the Nets are missing one-third of their big three in Kyrie Irving, and possibly two-thirds if Harden (questionable) can’t play while waiting for all physicals from the trade to be completed, it’s going to be an incredible challenge for the Magic to keep pace. The result could be ugly, leading many to crown the Nets after Day 1.
Or perhaps, Nikola Vucevic goes off against a Nets team that’s very thin at the center position after shipping Jarrett Allen to Cleveland as part of the Harden deal and giving extended minutes to rookie center Reggie Perry in their win over the Knicks. Vooch hasn’t fared well against Nets’ starting center DeAndre Jordan, averaging 13.6 points on 42.7% shooting in 14 career matchups, albeit with most of those games coming before Vucevic developed into a respectable three-point shooter.
Without Markelle Fultz and Evan Fournier, who will miss another game with back spasms, the Magic’s inability to initiate the offense, penetrate the lane, or help provide much spacing inside for Vooch because of their shooting woes certainly doesn’t help.
Defense (and rebounding), though, won’t be the strength of this Nets super team, as they try to prove false the “Defense wins championships” slogan and outgun teams each night with three ball-dominant superstars. Durant is his old self, averaging 29.4 points per game on an early-season career-best 53.7% shooting from the field, including 46.2% from three, also a personal high. In his last three games, all without Irving, KD has put up 32.0 points, 7.7 rebounds and 7.7 assists per, with a shooting slashline of .579/.474/.808. Even without Harden, and mostly without Kyrie, the Nets have posted the NBA’s fifth best offensive rating at 114.1 points per 100 possessions, and the second-best true shooting percentage at 60.4%.
Irving has missed the last five games for who really knows what reason, and will not return against the Magic because of health and safety protocols. He may return for the Nets’ Martin Luther King Day showdown with the Milwaukee Bucks, which will serve as a much better gauge as Brooklyn faces one of the leagues elite defenses and a fellow contender.
Harden, the NBA scoring leader for the last three seasons, will team with Durant for the first time since 2012 with the Oklahoma City Thunder. How the dribble-happy Harden fits into the Nets’ offense, how rookie coach Steve Nash manages minutes and lineups and playcalling, and how three high-usage players share the ball and mesh, will be fascinating to see.
“Chemistry, sacrifice,” Harden told reporters on Friday. “We’re all elite, so depending on the game and what’s going on throughout the course of the game, that’s going to determine who gets the ball and who makes the plays...We’re all unselfish, we’re all willing passers and we play basketball the right way.”
Facing the new-look Nets is going to be a miserable for nearly all NBA defenses. And the always-lucky Orlando Magic get to be the first to try to contain them.
Who: Orlando Magic (6-6) at Brooklyn Nets (7-6)
When: Saturday at 6 p.m.
Where: Barclays Center - Brooklyn, New York
TV: Fox Sports Florida