The Magic’s home tilt against the Cavaliers surprisingly pitted the third and fourth-placed teams in the Eastern Conference against each other, an early season matchup with greater weight than most would have expected. Both teams entered this one dealing with injury concerns, with Orlando again missing the services of Evan Fournier, James Ennis and Chuma Okeke, while Cleveland would be absent one component of the ‘SexLand’ equation with Darius Garland sitting as a result of a shoulder complaint.
The Magic raced out to an early 10-0 lead, built on the back of a pair of long-range makes courtesy of Aaron Gordon and some engaged and energetic defense at the other end. The team was also noticeably more focused on getting into the painted area on offense, with Markelle Fultz, Michael Carter-Williams and Gordon all leading various forays through the lane. The results weren’t always great, but the intent was evident after the OKC game in which they collectively settled too often for mid to long-range jumpers.
The contest settled into more of a back-and-forth affair after this initial outburst, with the Cavs steadily wresting the momentum from Orlando. They eventually built a 10-0 run of their own to knot things up at 15 apiece before a Nikola Vucevic jumper from the mid-range put the Magic back in front. It was a familiar story for Orlando in the back half of the quarter, with the offense struggling to generate clean looks against a Cleveland side that was sagging way off and packing the painted area. Hustle from Khem Birch and Gary Clark helped to extend plays and provide the team with needed extra possessions, some of which were eventually converted and pushed the home team back to a 26-19 lead at quarter-time.
The Magic continued their assault on the offensive glass as the second quarter got underway, extending sequences on two of the team’s first three misses in the period. Unfortunately it didn’t immediately lead to a scoring boost, with shooting struggles still evident on both jumpers and soft touch opportunities at the hoop. In fact, Cole Anthony’s desire to crash the boards resulted in some transition opportunities for the Cavs, necessitating an early timeout for Orlando to recalibrate.
Cleveland’s heavy zone use ensured that the Magic struggled to establish offensive fluidity, but they continued to stick to their key principles and demonstrated increased patience once a few of the starters checked back in. The team funneled everything through Vucevic, posting the big man up, having him screen and pop to the perimeter for open jumpers, and allowing him to flash his passing acumen when faced with a double team. He either scored or assisted on 10 straight points for the Magic, a fact that, when coupled with a monster putback from Birch, helped the team maintain its slender lead even amidst a series of lazy turnovers that gifted the opposition easy points.
When the dust of the first half settled it was a two-point advantage held by the Magic, 51-49. Orlando had a slight edge on both three-pointers and free-throws, but a 41.7% field goal percentage (compared to 55.3% for the Cavs) and an unconscionable 10 turnovers meant they hadn’t been able to establish any real ascendancy. Worryingly, these turnovers had contributed to 12 Cleveland points which, when added to their sizable 30-20 points in the paint advantage, provided a pretty clear indication of why the game was balanced in the way it was. Second chance opportunities gleaned on the offensive glass were the major reason why the Magic had their nose ahead, but it was ultimately a relatively dispiriting performance for a half of basketball in which they never trailed.
Markelle Fultz, who had oscillated between largely ineffective and demonstrably putrid in the first half, came out of the major break with a bang, throwing down a highlight reel slam that showed off every inch of his wingspan. Some clunky shooting after this opening sequence actually allowed the Cavs to inch ahead on a Damyean Dotson triple, but it was at this moment that the AG and ‘Kelle show ignited.
First Orlando’s point guard pushed the pace after a Cleveland miss and found a wide open Gordon for his fourth triple of the game. On the next possession the pair hooked up for a sweet lob off a hard cut, before a fifth AG three-point make pushed Orlando’s lead back to 4. A drive-and-dish from Fultz to Gordon on the baseline continued the collaboration, before another sweet find from the young guard against a backpedaling defense allowed Gordon the opportunity to cash in from deep one more time, giving him 13 in the quarter and pushing the Magic to a healthy 8 point buffer.
The scoring burst continued for the Magic coming out of a timeout, eventually extending to a 23-6 run that put the side up by 16. Fultz and Terrence Ross both got mid-range jumpers to go, with the point guard continuing to demonstrate his newly-discovered feel for the contest by finding first Vucevic for a smooth trail three that was nothing but net and then later Anthony for a bomb from just above the break in transition. Ross was fouled attempting a three-pointer for the fifth time this season — because of course he was — to keep the scoreboard ticking over, receiving scoring punch assistance from an active Birch around the hoop. An opportunistic triple from Dwayne Bacon, who took off with just a few seconds remaining in the quarter and caught the Cavs napping, extended Orlando’s advantage to 22, with the homeside up 89-67 after three.
The fourth quarter was a relatively sedate affair, with much of the sting out of a contest that had already been decided. From Orlando’s perspective the most intriguing development was the season debut of Mo Bamba, who checked in with a shade under five minutes left to play as his first step back towards the regular rotation. He didn’t do much in his time on the court — 2 rebounds, an assist and a block — but it was encouraging just to see him out there as the Magic closed out what was ultimately a comfortable, third-quarter inspired 103-83 win.
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: Aaron Gordon — 24 points, 11 rebounds and an equal career-best 6 three-pointers, as well as a dynamite stretch that ultimately propelled the Magic to victory. The most pleasing aspect of AG’s performance wasn’t necessarily his shooting stroke (although that was welcome!) but the decisiveness of his decision-making, whether it was pulling the trigger in rhythm, knowing when to put the ball on the floor or to keep it moving, or incisive off-ball movement.
Second star: Nikola Vucevic — An efficient 23 and 8 that buoyed the side through a clunky first half. When you add his shooting stroke from the mid-range extended to his smooth footwork in the post it’s easy to see why he’s such a reliably impactful offensive fulcrum. He even chucked in 3 blocks for good measure.
Third star: Khem Birch — the Big Maple was an absolute monster in his backup minutes tonight, racking up 12 points, 12 rebounds and 2 stocks and playing ferocious and frustrating defense against both Drummond and McGee. His work on the offensive glass helped keep the team in it when the scoring dried up, while his defensive efforts set a tone.
Despite coming so early in the season, this one still had the feel of a must-win game for a Magic side reeling from two straight ugly losses. They’re back in the winner’s circle for now, and with a chance to account for a sweep of the two-game series when they’re back in action against the Cavs on Wednesday.