A thoroughly depleted Magic side came into tonight’s contest against the Rockets with a chance to claim the franchise’s best ever start to a season through nine games. With six players (and four ostensible starters) unavailable either due to injury or injury management, it was always going to be a tall order. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for that projection to be proven accurate.
Orlando’s game plan was obvious from the outset: get it to Nikola Vucevic early and often. Flanked in the starting unit by Dwayne Bacon, Gary Clark, James Ennis and the newly promoted Cole Anthony, the majority of the team’s offense was going to be filtered through the big man, either as the primary scoring option or as a facilitator passing out of the elbow and post. He helped the Magic generate enough points to skip to an early 12-8 lead, before cold shooting and sloppy defense turned the tide. Houston rattled off 13 uninterrupted points as Orlando missed 8 shot attempts in a row, a worrying portent of the night to come. When the quarter came to a close it was 32-17 in favor of the Rockets, with the Magic being outplayed at both ends of the floor.
Did you think Nikola Vucevic would get our first bucket against the Rockets?— Orlando Magic (@OrlandoMagic) January 9, 2021
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The disorganization evident in the Magic’s game continued after the first break. Defensive miscues gifted the Rockets space both inside and out, while a smothered Terrence Ross and limited teammates pressed into higher duty meant that the second unit struggled to keep pace on the scoreboard. When Houston inevitably found their collective outside shooting stroke it was game over. Four triples over a three-and-a-half minute stretch — including three to Ben McLemore — saw the deficit balloon to 25, with Orlando going to a time out for some soul searching at just the 7:25 mark of the quarter down 46-21.
Things didn’t improve much coming out of the huddle. Orlando continued to struggle with the ball in hand, generating little in way of movement or clean looks. The Rockets weren’t much better themselves, but they did enough against a bad Orlando defense to extend their already healthy lead. When the sweet relief of halftime blessedly interrupted the first half beatdown it was 62-33, the Magic down 29 and with no conceivable way to get back into a contest that had long slipped away.
The boxscore laid bare just how poorly things had gone for Orlando. As a team they shot just 28.6% from the field, including an arctic 1-12 from deep (8.3%). They had only 6 assists as a team, emblematic of the stagnation evident with the ball in hand. James Ennis was the only player to have made half of his shot attempts (2-4), and was also sporting a borderline miraculous plus/minus of +2. By comparison the Rockets had made 11 of 23 three-point bombs 47.8%), supplementing this with 24 points in the paint on their way to 53.3% shooting from the field. No two ways about it: this was a Magic masterpiece in ugly basketball.
Orlando came out with some improved energy to open the third, but it was a relatively short-lived burst. After getting a few baskets to go the team’s shooting touch again dried up, while at the other end the Magic seemed thoroughly incapable of countering the one-two punch of James Harden and Christian Wood. They combined over and over again on simple pick-and-roll plays, the lethargic resistance evidence of the fight missing from an outmatched Orlando side. The lead ballooned to as many as 38 in the period, eventually settling at 36 after the Magic hit some late triples - including an unexpected make from the corner for Khem Birch.
The fourth quarter featured little in the way of meaningful basketball, but it at least held some interest for Magic fans courtesy of an extended run for Mo Bamba. The third-year big got his first points of the season on a putback soon after stepping on the court, and then found some chemistry with Anthony when the rookie checked back in. They combined for points on three straight possessions, with screen action freeing Bamba up for a pair of triples and then a hook shot deep in the paint. He eventually checked out with a few minutes to play with what looked like either exhaustion (understandable) or a tweaked lower back (classic Orlando). Either way that ended any real interest in the contest, with garbage time playing out as the Magic eventually went down in an incredibly ugly display, 132-90.
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 — It’s difficult to imagine what the outcome would have looked like if the Magic had also been missing Vooch. He put up 22 and 12 despite seeing a steady stream of defensive attention and having little in way of offensive support. The best of a bad bunch.
Second star: Mo Bamba — Saw his first real run of the season, putting up 12 points and 7 rebounds in 13 minutes of game time. Nearly all of his production came during a stretch that the sting was well and truly out of, but it was an encouraging sign nonetheless from a player who has missed so much time.
Third star: James Ennis — Had a rad dunk in the first quarter. That’s all.
Okay, that’s done. Let’s never talk about it again.