At times like this it’s difficult to see how the result of a basketball game can be the lead story anywhere. The political, legal and social atmosphere of the last few days had already cast a pall on the night’s proceedings, a gloomy atmosphere that was soon added to by some of the on-court proceedings. What was eventually a comfortable win ultimately became a secondary consideration.
The Magic, already undermanned and sporting their third starting unit of the season, were almost immediately confronted by the dispiriting specter of injury in their return home contest against the Cavaliers. Just 4 minutes and 25 seconds into the game, on a hard drive into the lane, Markelle Fultz went down in obvious and immediate pain after his left knee buckled with seemingly little in the way of contact. While the team, fans and, most importantly, the young man himself await a complete diagnosis, our fingers remain collectively crossed in hope.
Orlando were already having some difficulty finding a flow in the early going, with a smooth Fultz finish on the game’s first possession the team’s only basket in the opening five minutes. The loss of the point guard left the team obviously distracted and a little discombobulated, but to their credit they were able to eventually steady. Cole Anthony and Terrence Ross helped to peg back what had swelled to a 12 point deficit, with some nice play primarily in the mid-range ensuring the team went into the first break down just 23-15.
Things started cooking for the home side in the second quarter, primarily a result of Ross going into full Human Torch mode. He racked up 11 individual points as part of a 15-2 Orlando spurt, with his dead-eye three-point shooting being supported with decisive forays into the paint that drew contact. The Magic were able to wipe out the entirety of the first quarter deficit, eventually establishing a four-point advantage before the Cavs were able to stem the bleeding. At this point the game settled into a back-and-forth affair, with Cleveland leaning on Collin Sexton and second-chance opportunities, while Orlando routinely exploited the mismatch Nikola Vucevic was enjoying against Thon Maker in single coverage.
— Orlando Magic (@OrlandoMagic) January 7, 2021
3-for-3 from 3
13 pts pic.twitter.com/o1RYoWlJv7
Ultimately it was a gritty first half performance by the Magic. Already missing Fournier, Carter-Williams, Okeke, Aminu and Isaac and then losing Fultz could have sent the team into a tailspin, but instead they rallied behind solid contributions from players called into heavier duty, like Cole Anthony, Karim Bone and a returning James Ennis. When the dust of the chaotic first half settled it was Orlando leading 51-45, courtesy of 52.5% shooting from the field (compared to 39.5% for the Cavs) and a commitment to ball security (just 6 turnovers in the half). Ross led the way with 13, Vucevic chipped in 11 and Dwayne Bacon added 9, while Gordon had a spread of 5 points, 6 rebounds and 2 assists toggling between both forward slots. The question would be whether the besieged team could sustain their play for another 24 minutes.
A simplified offensive game plan resulted in a steady stream of two-man sets for Orlando to open the third quarter, an approach that yielded immediate dividends. It was Bacon and Gordon doing most of the damage — the pair combined for the Magic’s first 15 points of the period — with Vucevic’s screens and ensuing gravity doing a lot to generate advantageous space. The defense also remained tight, with a commitment to icing the ball handler, forcing all penetration baseline, and rotating decisively when the ball was kicked back out. Orlando were able to push their advantage to 15 on the back of a Ross and-one from beyond the arc (because of course), before a late Bone-inspired flurry extended it to a game-high 19 at the three-quarter buzzer, 83-64.
Orlando simply took care of business in the fourth, getting contributions up and down the rotation as they put away a tired Cleveland team feeling their own injury pinch. Anthony had a handful of nice plays in the period, Mo Bamba was sighted for the second consecutive game, and Birch threw down the highlight of the whole contest with a monstrous put back slam from the weakside. Things eventually wound down through a listless final few minutes, a 105-94 scoreline the final result for a deserving Magic side.
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: Terrence Ross — it was the Human Torch who really got the reeling Magic back on track in this one, with his dangerous outside shooting moving the scoreboard and creating opportunities for teammates. Finished with 20 points on 6-9 shooting, including 5-6 from deep.
Second star: Dwayne Bacon — was an impactful source of offense for an undermanned Orlando side that desperately needed it tonight. Racked up his 19 in a variety of ways, eventually finishing 8-13 from the field and 2-4 on long range bombs. Has definitively proven there’s a role he can play on this team, particularly on nights when things are clicking.
Third star: Nikola Vucevic — it wasn’t the big man’s most efficient outing, but he still piled up 16, 7 and 6 as he powered the Magic through a handful of sequences by exploiting advantageous matchups. His mere presence is responsible for so much of the Magic’s success at both ends these days, even on nights when he doesn’t dominate.
The win moves the Magic to 6-2 on the season, but it’s difficult to feel too much excitement considering the uncertainty around Fultz and his immediate future. Still, the team responded about as well as one could have hoped, embracing the ‘next man up’ mentality that was needed. Now we hold our breath and wish for the best.