The Magic were the first to get a lesson that the rest of the NBA is about to learn: the Brooklyn Nets are going to be a problem.
Orlando, looking to play spoiler with James Harden making his Nets debut after a blockbuster trade with Houston, got a first look at how challenging it is to contain Brooklyn’s new Big Two...never mind their Big Three once Kyrie Irving joins the mix.
Despite the best efforts of their own star, Nikola Vucevic, who posted a season-high 34 points, the Nets showed the benefits of having two superstars as Harden posted a triple-double and Kevin Durant eclipsed the 40-point mark to lead Brooklyn to a 122-115 win over the Magic.
“It’s hard to defend,” Steve Clifford told reporters after the game. “I mean, whatever, they’re two of the four, five best offensive players in the world.”
It was a slow start for Harden, who missed both of his field goal attempts in the first, but got the to the line late in the quarter for his first points a a Net. It was his fellow Big Three member Kevin Durant who got off to the fast start, scoring 9 points in the quarter. Joe Harris, yes the Joe Harris the Magic waived a few years back, also added 9 points in the first.
The Magic’s struggles from three continued, with the team hitting just 2 of 14 attempts from deep in the opening quarter. But it remained a one-possession game thanks to Nikola Vucevic, who also had 9 points in the first, and Khem Birch, who added 5 points and showed his new-found offensive range in the quarter, hitting a mid-range J, scoring out of the post, and getting fouled in transition to get to the line.
Harden began to attack the paint in the second, scoring his first field goal on a Euro step, finishing the half with 8 points, 7 assists and 5 rebounds. Harden hit a pull-up jumper, and then found Durant for a bucket to give the nets a 50-43 lead with just under two minutes left in the half. Vucevic responded with a quick three and the Magic went into the half down just 52-50.
Durant had 16 at the half and Harris added 14 as the Nets shot 46.2% from the field.
Vucevic at the half had 16 points on 7-for-12 shooting. Birch and Gordon each added 7, but the Magic overall shot 43.2% from the field after making only 5 of their 25 three-point attempts (20.8%). Despite the cold shooting from the outside, the Magic kept it close thanks in part to the Nets’ carelessness with the ball, as they commit 11 first-half turnovers, four by Harden.
The Magic’s three-point shooting came to life early in the third, with early makes by Dwayne Bacon (seven points in the third) and Vooch. The Magic took a five-point lead with 4:57 left in the third after another three by Vucevic that made it 71-66.
A 7-0 run by the Nets late in the third put them back in front, 81-79. After Birch tied it with a pair of free throws, Harden hit a contested three to put the Rockets up three. Terrence Ross then hit a runner to pull the Magic within 84-83 heading into the fourth.
Ross, after missing his first five threes of the game, hit a big one to pull the Magic within 90-88 early in the fourth. But Durant answered with a three, and Harden followed with another to push the Nets’ lead to 96-88 as the Nets hit their first six shots of the fourth.
Ross would hit his next two threes, totaling 13 points in the opening five minutes of the fourth, to help the Magic get back within 100-98 with 6:57 to go.
For every Magic bucket, the Nets had a response, which tends to happen when you have that much firepower. Durant followed with a jumper and Harris added yet another three to make it 105-98. Vucevic’s tip-in and jumper got the Magic back within three before Durant hit a three to make it 110-104. Vooch responded with his sixth three of the game, a career-high, before Harden got to the line and hit four free throws and Bruce Brown sealed it with a three.
It was a valiant effort by a shorthanded Magic team on the second night of a back-to-back, but it’s hard to compete with a team when Durant is putting up 42 points on 16-for-26 shooting and Harden debuts with a triple-double of 32 points, 14 assists and 12 rebounds and four steals.
James Harden with a franchise record FOURTEEN assists in his Nets debut pic.twitter.com/2JEoSqGHuj— Brooklyn Nets (@BrooklynNets) January 17, 2021
Harden shot 8-for-18 from the field, hitting just 3 of 10 attempts from deep, and made 13 of 15 free throw attempts, nearly identical figures to that of the entire Magic team (13 of 16 from the line). The duo did have 15 turnovers (9 for Harden, 6 for Durant), but that is to be expected for a revamped team that was essentially freestyling after such a massive trade.
Vucevic did all he could with 34 points points on 14-for-22 shooting, including 6 of 12 from deep as he took and made more threes than ever before in a single game. Vooch also had 10 rebounds, 7 assists and 5 steals.
Ross, after a slow start, finished with 23 points. Cole Anthony matched his career-high with 16 points (6-for-15, 2-for-5 from three) and added 8 assists, while turning the ball over only once. Aaron Gordon had 11 points, 6 assists and 6 rebounds. Gary Clark also chipped in with 10 points.
The Magic, who shot 46.3% from the field and 30.4% from three (14-for-46) eclipsed the 100-point mark after failing to do so in their previous four games. But it wasn’t enough to stop their losing streak from reaching five games as they dropped below .500 for the first time this season (6-7).
“Let’s be honest, and I talked about this candidly with the group today, the Markelle injury has taken a lot out of us,” Clifford said. ”And we have other guys down too. But tonight was the first time since the Cleveland game where I think that we started to find a belief int he way that we can play. So we have a chance to take a step forward.”
The road trip continues, but the schedule lightens up with winnable games against the Knicks on Monday afternoon and the T-wolves on Wednesday.