The adversity facing the Orlando Magic Friday night against their in-state rival was as significant as it has been at any point this season, and that’s saying something considering how difficult things have been for the team.
Max Strus scored a game-high 32 points off Miami’s bench, and starting guard Gabe Vincent added 27 more to help the Heat defeat a depleted Magic team, 115-105.
Orlando canceled their morning shootaround Friday after learning of a positive COVID-19 test. As it turns out, the Magic would go on to lose five players to NBA Health & Safety protocols as the day wore on - Mo Bamba, Iggy Brazdeikis, R.J. Hampton, Terrence Ross, and Moritz Wagner.
The Magic were also without starting point guard Cole Anthony, who is still battling an ankle injury (along with the five players that have been out for Orlando for some time: Michael Carter-Williams, Markelle Fultz, Jonathan Isaac, E’Twaun Moore, and Jalen Suggs).
There were moments of doubt whether the Magic would be able to field a team of eight required players Friday night. To make things work, Orlando was able to bring in Aleem Ford, Hassani Gravett, B.J. Johnson, and Admiral Schofield from their Lakeland G-League affiliate team.
“We talked about this with the guys, it’s the next man up,” Orlando head coach Jamahl Mosley told reporters after the game. “No matter what’s going on, no matter what happens, you have to be ready to go. When your number is called, you step in and be ready to go. And I think these guys did a great job competing, fighting, and playing with extreme effort.”
To add insult to injury, the Magic lost starting power forward Wendell Carter Jr. early in the second quarter of the game Friday. Team officials announced that Carter Jr. had suffered a “right lower leg injury” and that he’ll undergo further evaluation.
Miami was shorthanded has well, playing without stars such as Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, as well as important role players such as Tyler Herro and Markieff Morris.
The game started for Orlando with two signature hook shots from Robin Lopez, who was starting in place of <take your pick>.
Despite the mix-and-matched lineup, the Magic recorded five assists within the first five minutes of the contest. Orlando scored 18 of the game’s first 26 points, immediately jumping out to a double-digit lead.
RoLo hooks— Orlando Magic (@OrlandoMagic) December 18, 2021
: https://t.co/wGBuszyEde pic.twitter.com/DrB7F2WBCd
After starting the game just 3 for their first 10 from the field, the Heat proceeded to go on a 15-0 run following a mid-first quarter timeout.
Once the Magic broke their lineup, things started to get away from them in a hurry offensively. Orlando managed just two field goals over the last 5:38 in the first quarter.
And then came the Carter Jr. injury. With 11:38 left in the second quarter, following Orlando’s first offensive possession, the Magic big man when down to the floor in a great deal of pain. It appeared that Carter Jr. banged knees with a Miami player on the previous play. Anthony and Suggs, who are nursing injuries of their own, helped the fourth-year center off the floor and into a wheelchair.
Wendell Carter, Jr. suffered right leg injury pic.twitter.com/bp9r4tncsz— Bally Sports Florida: Magic (@BallyMagic) December 18, 2021
“I think they continued to fight,” Mosley said when asked about how he thought his team responded after Carter Jr. went down. “We talk about this group of guys wanting it, willing to rally around one another.”
To their credit, the Magic were able to control their emotions and focus, battling the Heat back-and-forth in the second quarter.
Strus was unstoppable throughout the period, scoring 20 of his 32 in the second (including five three-point field goals in the quarter).
The Magic were able to stay connected in the game thanks to solid play from their two starting forwards, rookie Franz Wagner and second-year combo Chuma Okeke. Wagner and Okeke combined to score 22 points for Orlando in the second quarter.
23 points on 6-7 from deep for Max Strus...at the half @MiamiHEAT leading ORL on League Passhttps://t.co/QW4agkYQ6c pic.twitter.com/vwtzAyBBzS— NBA (@NBA) December 18, 2021
The Heat made 11 of their 18 three-point field goal attempts in the first half, and they followed that up by knocking-down three of their first four long range attempts to open the second half, building a fifteen point lead early in the third quarter.
Vincent hit a three-point field goal from the top of the key with under a minute remaining in the quarter to make it sixteen ‘three’s’ for the Heat through the first three quarters of the game. Vincent matched Strus’ offensive eruption in the second with an outburst of his own, scoring 18 in the third period.
Still, despite the Heat living up to their name with their shooting, and despite all the adversity that they were facing - the Magic managed to make it to the fourth quarter down just ten points.
Strus came alive again to begin the fourth, knocking down three-point field goals from the right wing on consecutive Heat possessions, to put Miami up by 17 points.
Miami finished the game 19 for 35 from long range (54.3 percent), led by Strus (8-11 3PTA’s).
As much as the deck was stacked against them, the Magic played relatively even with the Heat throughout the game, outside of Miami’s late first quarter run.
“I think (everybody) all had the same mindset, that we all had to be a little more aggressive,” Wagner said after the game, acknowledging what a ‘weird day’ it was. “Also, just stay within our game too. We didn’t really talk too much about Miami, it was more about our principles.”
Wagner finished with 27 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists. Okeke scored a season-high 18 points, grabbed 10 rebounds, and swiped a career-high six steals.
“The chemistry we’re building, the togetherness we’re building. We’re going to continue to grow with that,” Mosley said of his team after the game. “I think they did a fantastic job rallying around one another and continuing to fight against a very good Miami team.”
After playing sparingly through the first third of the season, Lopez scored 18 points on 9 of 13 shooting.
Things won’t get any easier for the short-handed Magic, who now travel to Brooklyn to take on the Nets on the second night of a back-to-back (Kevin Durant has already been announced as ‘out’ for the game). They will then travel further north into Canada to take on the Toronto Raptors.