We learned on Wednesday just how challenging the Magic’s second-half schedule is.
Well, the remainder of their first-half schedule is no picnic either. The Magic have four games remaining before the All-Star break, beginning with Thursday’s matchup against the surging, star-studded Brooklyn Nets.
The Nets look to continue their rise towards the very top of the Eastern Conference when they host the Magic, as they look to extend their seven-game winning streak. The last time the Nets won eight consecutive games? Back in 2006 when Jason Kidd and Vince Carter were on the team.
This time around it’s James Harden and Kyrie Irving leading the way, with leading scorer Kevin Durant sidelined with a hamstring injury for the last six games.
It was against the Magic that Harden made his Nets debut on Jan. 16, posting a triple-double of 32 points, 14 assists and 12 rebounds in a 122-115 Brooklyn win. In 19 games with the Nets, Harden has averaged 25.2 points, 11.6 assists and 8.5 rebounds while shooting 49.5 percent from the field and 41.7 percent from three while helping the Nets go 14-5 in that stretch.
The Nets, now just a half game behind the East-leading Sixers, have the league’s top offense at 121 points per game, the top offensive rating at 118.0 points per 100 possessions and the top true shooting percentage at 62.2 percent. It’s their defense that raises questions about their championship-caliber legitimacy, with the Nets posting a defensive rating towards the bottom of the league at 114.1 (fifth worst). The Nets allow the most second chance points per game (15.5) while posting a defensive rebounding percentage that is among the worst in the league, and allow more points in the paint (51.6) than every team but the Kings.
But with a healthy Big 3 of Durant, Harden and Irving, they should be able to outscore opponents into - and possibly straight through - the NBA Finals.
And lets not forget former Orlando Magic sharpshooter Joe Harris (sarcasm, he was infamously waived), who is averaging 15.1 points per game while shooting over 50 percent on 6.7 threes per game, and Bruce Brown, who is coming off a career-high 29 point scoring night.
The Nets remain thin at the center position (with a duo of DeAndre Jordan and Nic Claxton, who made his season-debut last game). Nikola Vucevic exploited that in their previous matchup, posting a stat line that no center in the history of the NBA has produced: 30-plus points (34), 10-plus rebounds (10), 5-plus assists (7), 5-plus steals (5), and 5-plus threes made (5).
Vucevic will likely get his again on Thursday, but the Nets will show a shorthanded Magic team that life is a lot easier when you have multiple All-Stars compared to one.
The Magic had their three-game winning streak snapped on Tuesday when they suffered through what was arguably their most dismal offensive performance of the season, dropping their offensive rating to 105.4 (third worst in the league) and true shooting to 52.9 percent (worst in the league). Their defense, however, has improved of late, with the team posting the league’s top defensive rating over their last eight games at 105.3 points per.
The Magic will need a stellar defensive performance, and a near perfect offensive performance with Vooch touching the ball on every possession and his teammates actually knocking down open looks, to have any chance against the Nets.
Waiting for the Magic after the Nets game, you ask? Just the best team in the NBA, as the 26-6 Utah Jazz come to Orlando on Saturday.
Who: Orlando Magic (13-19) at Brooklyn Nets (21-12)
When: Thursday at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Barclays Center — Brooklyn, New York
TV: Fox Sports Florida