The Magic came into the second night of their home back-to-back set against the Hornets seeking redemption. After choking away a sizable fourth-quarter lead in yesterday’s showdown, salvaging a win in this one would help to reestablish some confidence for a team that has been battered recently. Fortunately for Orlando, a career night from Cole Anthony combined with a season-high number of made threes (19) meant that it was an outcome they were able to achieve with relative comfort, despite an early hole.
There was not a lot of fluidity to Orlando’s offensive game across the opening minutes, with the team struggling to put early points on the board. After opening with a smooth zone-busting passing sequence that generated an Evan Fournier corner triple things dried up, with the Magic enduring seven empty possessions (5 missed field goals and 2 turnovers) before they would begin to regain some rhythm. Over-passing was a team-wide affliction at this point, with players seemingly hesitant to pull the trigger and then putting their teammates in tight positions against closing defenders and a dwindling shot clock. Orlando had just 8 points as the quarter passed the mid-way mark, emblematic of their collective scoring troubles.
At the other end of the court it was a familiar figure inflicting most of the damage upon the Magic. Gordon Hayward picked up right where he left off last night, almost effortlessly racking up 10 early points on a combination of long range bombs and incisive forays into the lane. Even when Orlando managed to smother his moves his teammates enjoyed an advantage elsewhere, a direct result of the attention he was drawing from help rotations. The Magic’s inaccurate radar — 25.0% overall from the field and just 3-11 from deep — only exacerbated the problem, allowing the Hornets to build a comfortable double-digit lead before the quarter ended. When it blessedly did it was 30-19 in Charlotte’s favor, Orlando in desperate need of greater accuracy and smart adjustments.
The Magic generated some momentum coming out of the break, the result of more decisive offensive possessions. It wasn’t always pretty but the scorer’s mentality of both Dwayne Bacon and Terrence Ross helped the team score the quarter’s first 8 points as part of a larger 20-2 run. When Aaron Gordon sank a three-point jumper after coming over a screen, Orlando suddenly had the lead, which Bacon extended with a spinning jumper that sent the Hornets scrambling to the benches for a time out. It was 35-32 and the game’s complexion had started to shift.
With the offense now humming the Magic needed to lock in on defense if they were going to protect the advantage they had built. An adjustment seemingly came after the huddle with Gordon assuming the responsibility for the Hayward matchup, a look the team obviously lacked in the previous contest. It was a short-lived change, however, with AG heading to the bench for a regular breather only a few possessions later and Fournier again shifting to cover Charlotte’s most dangerous option. It was a matchup that Orlando’s two-guard struggled with, although he was able to offset it with some measured offensive play of his own: a smooth driving layup sandwiched between a pair of aware assists that found open teammates. Combined with some timely makes from deep by Cole Anthony it was ultimately just enough for the Magic to maintain their advantage, a 55-54 lead despite a sloppy finish that saw them cede the final 8 points of the quarter.
Statistically it was a notably close half of basketball, despite the oscillating swings. Orlando went into the break shooting 42.2% from the floor as a team, with 8 makes from deep on 20 attempts. By comparison, the Hornets were converting at 43.1%, with 6 made threes to show for their 20 attempts beyond the arc. On the boards it was 27-23 the way of the Magic, although the Hornets had claimed 8 offensive rebounds to Orlando’s 6. They were also winning the turnover count 7-4, another area the Magic would need to clean up when play resumed.
Hayward continued to give Orlando fits in the third quarter, scoring seven straight for Charlotte as he kept them afloat amidst a steady stream of quality scoring attempts for the Magic. James Ennis eventually started to gain the advantage in that assignment, though, first blocking a Hayward perimeter jumper and then stripping the star wing on the next sequence to fuel a transition layup for Anthony. A pair of long range makes from Fournier and then Nikola Vucevic capped the run at 12-0, extending Orlando’s lead to 74-61 as the teams went to a time out.
The shooting onslaught continued for the Magic, with Fournier and Anthony both banging home triples as the team ballooned their advantage to 20. Anthony’s second of the period pushed his personal points tally to 20, a career-high with plenty of time remaining. Unfortunately, that’s where things gummed up some for the home side, with Orlando suffering through six empty possessions (4 missed shots and a pair of turnovers) that allowed the Hornets to more than half the margin. Some sloppy play by both teams in the closing stages of the third meant that neither was able to claim the ascendancy, with the score settling at 87-76 as the sides prepared for the final twelve minutes.
The Magic opened the fourth quarter with a pretty zone-busting passing sequence that ended with a three in the corner from Gary Clark. They were also able to use some advantageous transition chances — spurred by the turnovers generated and heads-up play from rebounders — to keep adding to the team’s total. They were also able to do enough on defense to make life hard for the Hornets, with generally solid closeouts and active hands in the passing lanes. Orlando’s lead continued to hover around the 10 point mark, with Clark answering Terry Rozier’s third triple of the period with a second of his own as the teams went to a timeout with a shade under six minutes to play and the Magic leading 104-94.
Charlotte extended their halfcourt zone coverage to a trapping backcourt press, but Orlando were able to navigate their way out of trouble. They also continued to lean heavily on Vucevic to control the offense, using quick passes to feed the big man in one-on-one matchups. Fournier chimed in with a couple of big buckets of his own, allowing the Magic to maintain their advantage despite the persistent intensity and challenge from the Hornets. A series of free throws from Charlotte shrank the margin a little, but Orlando were ultimately able to hold on and close the game at the line themselves. When the dust settled it was 117-108 to the Magic, a redemptive conclusion to the two-game set between a pair of teams both on the fringe of the playoff race.
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: Nikola Vucevic — was a model of reliability in the middle for the Magic, racking up 28 points, 12 rebounds and 7 assists in another complete performance. His 4 of 7 night from behind the arc continued his monster year of three-point shooting, a facet of play that has unlocked even more of his game this season and that was on full display again tonight.
Second star: Cole Anthony — put up a career-high 21 points on 8-12 shooting, including 4 of 5 from deep, adding 5 rebounds and 3 assists for good measure. The consecutive triples he drilled in the third quarter essentially broke the Hornets’ back in this one.
Third star: Depth contributions — Dwayne Bacon had 15 and 3. Khem Birch got himself 8, 8 and 3. And Gary Clark had 8 huge fourth quarter points that ensured the Magic stayed in charge as the game moved towards its closing phase. Combined the trio were 12-21 from the field for 31 points, including 3 of 7 from deep and a perfect 4-4 from the line. It was an efficient contribution from a collection of players that most probably expected little from this season.
The win sends Orlando to 8-10 on the season, with games against Sacramento, a potentially depleted Clippers outfit, and the displ;aced Raptors on the immediate horizon. Squint hard enough and it’s possible to see a record once again above .500. Let’s keep the collective fingers crossed.