The 2,500th game in franchise history presented the Orlando Magic with a chance to right the ship. Facing one of the league’s worst teams by record (and most advanced metrics, to be fair) and buoyed by the return of Evan Fournier to the lineup, there was some confidence coming into this contest that they would be able to arrest the six-game losing slide that had engulfed the team. For much of the night, however, it appeared that this would not be the case, with poor shooting, an inattention to detail, and yet another three-point disadvantage conspiring to put the Magic in a hole. Orlando quickly fumbled away an early advantage that they would need literally the remainder of the game to reel in. That they eventually did so was nothing short of a miracle.
In his return Fournier was able to immediately make his presence felt. The ball moved through his hands on each of the team’s first four possessions, with some smooth two-man action with his favourite running mate, Nikola Vucevic, and a drawn foul on a three-point attempt immediately highlighting just what the team has been missing during his absence. Vooch was also able to continue his strong recent shooting form during these opening exchanges, drilling a pair from deep and an extended jumper that — when paired with an easy transition layup for Fournier — forced Minnesota to an early timeout as the Magic built a six-point lead, 17-11.
Outside of an ugly possession on which Orlando gave up four consecutive offensive rebounds, the remainder of the opening quarter settled into a relatively predictable back-and-forth rhythm. The Magic were most comfortable looking to generate mismatches or isolation opportunities for Vucevic, while the Timberwolves moved the ball on the perimeter with the intent of attacking closeouts when they came. There were some individual highlights — a deft Terrence Ross floater, a smothering block by Aaron Gordon, a Khem Birch euro step — but Minnesota made enough shots of their own to ensure the contest remained balanced. When the first quarter closed it was 25-21 in Orlando’s favor, courtesy largely of the returning Fournier and Vooch’s personal haul of 12 points.
A smooth reverse finish at the hoop by Dwayne Bacon opened the scoring in the second period, but that’s where things started to gum up. Over-dribbling, minimal ball movement, bobbled passes, and some sloppy turnovers allowed the Timberwolves to rattle off an 16-0 burst, including a trio of triples from D’Angelo Russell that seemed an ominous portent of a big night to come. Not even the early re-injection of Vucevic could immediately stem the tide, and the Magic were sent scuttling to a huddle just four minutes into the quarter and now facing a double-digit deficit.
An Aaron Gordon free-throw eventually halted Orlando’s offensive futility, but the respite was only temporary. Turnovers and directionless possessions ensured that the Magic continued to come up empty, with the misses outnumbering the makes by a rate of more than 1 to 10 for much of the period. The field goal drought eventually lasted almost eight minutes, a barren stretch that allowed Minnesota to open up a 17 point lead courtesy of a seemingly interminable 24-1 run. Both the Magic’s execution and effort were evidently poor, with the collective body language demonstrative of a team lacking resilience. When the relief in the form of the halftime buzzer was finally felt Orlando were in a 51-35 hole, the solid opening quarter long since forgotten.
The boxscore at the break was evidence of the carnage the second quarter wrought. Across the first half Orlando shot just 27.3% from the field as a team, making 12 of 44 total shots and only an ice-cold 3 of 12 long range attempts (25.0%). In fact, outside of James Ennis (1-2) no Magic player made at least half of their attempts. Additionally, as a team Orlando were blocked 7 times and committed 6 turnovers as a team, continually gifting the Timberwolves opportunities to extend their advantage. Minnesota were hardly shooting the lights out — 41.3% from the field and 38.1% from deep — but the sheer volume of chances and the Magic’s futility was enough to ensure that this was a game already in the process of slipping away.
The same lack of fluency that permeated Orlando’s offense throughout the first half was again evident during the third quarter. Stagnant possessions and undisciplined turnovers plagued the team, and while the defense was generally okay it wasn’t enough to make up for the lack of scoreboard pressure coming from the offense. Both Fournier and Gordon provided glimpses of a game plan that might have extracted the team from its slump, but such moments were short lived. Vucevic eventually got the ball to again go, scoring 8 consecutive points for the Magic to maintain a glimmer. A Bacon layup followed by a Terrence Ross jumper from the free-throw line sliced the margin further, before another triple from Vooch at the buzzer sent Orlando into the break down just 77-68, having trimmed the deficit to a manageable 9 points despite the dysfunction of the night to that point.
Orlando’s intensity was noticeably improved entering the final frame, although many of the same errors of execution continued to afflict the team. Still, with persistence and a re-dedication to playing inside-out the Magic were able to cut the margin to just 5 as Vooch, Fournier and then Gordon all got shots in the painted area to go. The heartbeat was becoming more pronounced.
The Timberwolves rattled off 8 straight coming out of a time out, continuing to fill it up from distance on a night when the Magic often couldn’t buy a bucket. Fournier and Vucevic both missed wide open triples that threatened to shift the complexion of things, and when Vooch committed a final offensive foul with about four minutes it had the air of a night that simply wasn’t meant to be.
The Magic, however, would make one final push, starting with a successful challenge late from Steve Clifford. The team was able to turn the reversed possession into a Fournier triple that drew them back within five, and when AG sank his own long-range jumper on the next possession it was remarkably just a one possession game. With 34.6 seconds to play Cole Anthony finished a patient Orlando possession with a wide open bomb from the wing, and when Gordon hauled in a defensive rebound at the end of the next sequence it was clear the Magic would be given a chance to win a game they had long seemed out of.
An out-of-timeout in-bounds play with 16.4 seconds left initially sprung Fournier free for a look beyond the arc, but he couldn’t quite get his feet set and instead reversed the ball. The pass found AG wide open at the top of the arc, but his attempt hit back iron and the Timberwolves secured the rebound. A quick foul sent the inexperienced Jarrod Vanderbilt to the line for a pair with just 4.6 remaining, and Orlando’s fortunes were seemingly in the hands of the free throw gods.
When this rebound squirted free it was Anthony who was able to pounce first, securing possession and breaking into a frenetic dribble down court. With the seconds dwindling and timeouts unavailable, it was immediately evident the result would be decided by the rookie. The team’s fortunes were now in the hands of their latest draft hope.
Driving hard to his right the young point guard needed just four dribbles to reach the break above the arc. Aided by what looked like a sneaky push off with his left hand to clear a little space, he gathered the ball, recalibrated his body as best he could, and twisted the hips perfectly to offset an imbalanced and fading attempt. A snapped wrist set the ball loose with less than a second showing on the clock, and all that was left to do was wait.
The shot found nothing but the bottom of the net. In fact, it came out so pure it never looked like missing once it left Anthony’s hand. On a night marred by horrific shooting percentages the Magic were delivered an unlikely win courtesy of a pure scorer’s basket, the scoreboard showing 97-96 in Orlando’s favor as their rookie was mobbed by his teammates. It’s a finish Anthony and the team will remember for quite some time.
The Magic did just enough in this one to steal the win. Despite dispiriting play throughout much of the night they eventually ended up on top in both the rebound (48-43) and the turnover (11-13) count, and offset the three-point disadvantage faced with 7 extra trips to the charity stripe. Teams don’t win many games in which they shoot 39.1% from the floor, so Orlando should feel fortunate about the manner in which this one panned out.
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: Cole Anthony — What. A. Shot.
File this under: Things You Love to See pic.twitter.com/4orEH10UMG— Orlando Magic (@OrlandoMagic) January 21, 2021
Second star: Evan Fournier — it didn’t take long from the sweet shooting guard to remind the faithful of what they were missing when he was out. He’s still not all the way back in terms of timing and wind, but his 24 points, pair of assists, and threat of shooting and playmaking from the wing added a dimension to the team that largely hasn’t been sighted during his absence.
Third star: Nikola Vucevic — was great early and had a few stretches that single-handedly kept the team afloat, ultimately compiling 28 points to go along with 8 rebounds and 4 assists. Still, there was some uncharacteristic untidiness from the big man, emblematic of the off night the entire team had.
The Magic were a team in desperate need of some good fortune, and luckily for them and the faithful Cole Anthony was eventually able to deliver precisely what was sought. Let’s hope they can build on the result in the games to come.