The Magic came into Houston for the first match of a five-game road trip, looking to snap Houston’s modest winning streak and establish one of their own. Unfortunately they were unable to secure consecutive victories for the first time this season, falling 118-116 after a late rally came up less than an inch short.
The game was a three-point contest early, with the two teams combining to launch 28 attempts from beyond the arc across the first 12 minutes. Houston opened up an early advantage on the back of a slightly more accurate long-range radar, although the Magic were able to stay in touch courtesy of the Cole Anthony and Wendell Carter Jr. two-man game. Orlando got back within a bucket when Franz Wagner swooped on a loose ball and turned it into a three-point play in transition, before brother Moe banked in an ugly-looking long range attempt for the team’s first lead since the opening minutes. However, Houston ripped off a 12-2 run over the quarter’s final three-and-a-half minutes to build a 31-24 lead at the first break
The Magic began to steadily turn their cold shooting numbers around in the second quarter, with both RJ Hampton and Mo Bamba connecting from deep and Terrence Ross scoring on a smooth pull-up in the mid-range. Ross and Gary Harris were also both able to get themselves to the line for easy points, before a triple to Anthony capped a 10-2 Orlando run that edged them ahead 41-40.
Unfortunately, the next few minutes were marred by turnovers and inaccurate shooting by the Magic. Errant passes and moving screens turned into extra opportunities at the other end for Houston, and if it weren’t for some clunky execution by the Rockets the impact on the scoreboard could have been much worse. Instead, the run was 7-0 before a tic-tac-toe passing sequence from Anthony to Bamba to WCJ broke the run. The teams traded opportunities over the next few minutes before the Magic were able to put together a streak of their own, recording the last 8 points of the half to take a slender 56-54 lead into the main break.
Orlando were led at the half by Anthony’s 11 points and 3 assists, with primary support coming from Carter Jr. (a 10 and 10 double-double) and Bamba (7 points, 2 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 stocks). The team’s 11 turnovers and 30.4% shooting from deep was partially offset by the collective frequency and accuracy of free throw opportunities, with the Magic going 13-14 from the charity stripe in the half.
A couple of ugly turnovers on the first three possessions of the second half suggested that the sins of the first half would continue to haunt, but to Orlando’s credit they were able to settle the play down and prioritize execution. The Magic scored on four consecutive possessions to build a 9-0 run, with Wagner, Bamba and Anthony all chipping in buckets. Carter Jr. continued to offer stout resistance on the inside, cleaning the defensive glass and routinely frustrating Houston’s Christian Wood, in particular. Seemingly in a blink it was 67-59 to the Magic, the Rockets sent scuttling to an early time out.
Orlando continued to play solid team basketball, moving the ball with purpose and cutting hard off ball to create passing opportunities for teammates. The team also worked the offensive glass, routinely tracking down loose balls and extending possessions that they converted into second chance points. However, things started to come undone once the bench lineup entered the game, with the offensive flow suffering a little and the Rockets enjoying a burst of their own. Wood took advantage of WCJ being on the bench, scoring 10 straight for Houston as they climbed back into the lead, ultimately taking an 84-83 lead into the final frame after a late Chuma Okeke finish cut the margin to a single point.
Ross kept the scoreboard ticking over for the Magic in the opening minutes of the fourth, with a beautiful acrobatic finish at the hoop, a quick trigger triple, and his patented drawn foul on a three-point attempt contributing to a personal run of 10 straight points. The burst allowed Orlando to match Houston’s own scorching start to the period, the Rockets making their first four shots from the field as the teams went to a huddle with just a basket separating them, the Magic trailing 97-95 with a shade over eight minutes still to play.
Over the next few possessions the teams traded buckets and turnovers, a Ross inflicted four-point sequence to Houston the first play to create a little separation. Garrison Mathews’ second three of the evening extended the Rockets’ advantage to 109-100, before his third made it a double-digit deficit. It was ultimately five consecutive fruitless possessions for the Magic that contributed to the size of the hole, the team now down 114-101 as the game entered the final four minutes.
A Houston turnover turned into a dunk for Anthony, while a Wagner triple sliced the margin to just six. WCJ locked up Wood on the next sequence, blocking his ill-fated jumper attempt and forcing a 24-second turnover. Cole then got a mid-range pull-up to go on the next trip down the court, before Bamba swatted away a Tate put-back when Houston got a look at the hoop. A pair of free-throws to Wagner narrowed it even further, the cap on an 11-0 run that meant it was now 114-112 with less than a minute remaining in the game.
With Houston inbounding the ball the Magic were able to completely cut off their options, forcing a five second inbound turnover. Anthony drilled a cold-blooded jumper on the very next possession to lock the score up, before Eric Gordon got a soft floater to bounce in and restore Houston’s advantage. A beautiful find of Bamba by a driving Franz Wagner knotted the game once more, 116 each and just 6.5 seconds left for the Rockets to work with.
Houston went to the veteran Gordon again, popping him free with a Wood screen and then creating a driving lane for him with a second pick from his big-man teammate. He was able to sink a leaner from just inside the painted area, leaving the Magic with just 1.6 seconds and a final chance. A beautiful inbounds pass from Wagner gave Anthony a sliver of daylight above the break, but his clean three-point attempt was ultimately an inch short, bouncing away and consigning the Magic to a 118-116 loss.
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: Wendell Carter Jr. — only had 10 points on just 9 shots from the field, but his 16 rebounds, 2 blocks and superb defensive performance against Christian Wood was the pivotal contribution to the Magic’s chances in this one. If not for his play the game would likely have been lost significantly earlier.
Second star: Cole Anthony — just missed out on adding another cold-blooded kill-shot to his resume, but still showed plenty on his way to 26 points and 7 assists. His fourth-quarter play was the catalyst for the rally, even if it did ultimately fall short.
Third star: Franz Wagner — 17, 5 and 5 for the Magic rookie, who looks anything but inexperienced in navigating the court. The manner in which he moves around the hardwood on offense belies his youth, and his passing game continues to impress.
Next up is a tilt against the Warriors. To stand a chance the Magic will have to be significantly cleaner with the ball in hand. Let’s hope they can be.