Overcoming the league-best Jazz was always going to be a tall order for the Magic. It was one made even more difficult when factoring in the team’s seemingly endless list of absences due to injury, the latest being James Ennis who was scratched with a calf complaint. Although they hung around longer than most might have expected, eventually Orlando gave way to Utah’s unerring execution.
The Magic started the game well, keeping pace with the Jazz despite some cold shooting. Instead they were able to generate points via opportunistic hustle, with Al-Farouq Aminu extending possessions on the offensive glass and Evan Fournier striking in transition when Utah coughed the ball up. When Nikola Vucevic got the team’s first three-pointer to rattle in the Magic found themselves nursing a slight lead, up 16-15 as the teams went to a time out.
Utah adjusted with a zone look in the halfcourt, taking away the paint and forcing Orlando and their already shaky accuracy to settle for a series of jump shots. It largely worked, with the Magic’s offense lacking fluidity and failing to bend the Jazz defense. At the other end it was the instant offense of Jordan Clarkson and a steady stream of pick and rolls that Orlando had to contend with. It was a strategy that steadily paid dividends for the visitors, with the Magic struggling to contain Joe Ingles and his exploitation of the space that Rudy Gobert’s screens created. Fortunately for the home team Utah’s shooting was likewise a little frigid, and they went to the first break facing only a one-basket deficit, down just 22-21.
The opening minutes of the second provided the Magic with the jumpstart they needed. After some clunky hands spilled the team’s first turnover of the night they seemingly switched gears. First Aminu buried a three from the top of the arc after corralling a loose board. Mo Bamba followed it up with a triple of his own out of a two-man game with Fournier. The exclamation mark then arrived in the form of an emphatic Bamba flush, thrown down off a neat little lob from Fournier again out of the pick and roll. It was an 8-0 spurt to start the term, forcing the Jazz to retreat to an early huddle as they looked for a counter.
Utah’s answer came swiftly and in a downpour. They started hunting out three-point looks against a Magic side that was frequently dropping to the paint, firing up ten attempts across the game’s next four minutes and nailing five of them. The Magic saw their lead evaporate, falling behind by 6 after some ill-advised shots of their own kept their side of the scoreboard from ticking over. Eventually they were able to recover, showing a little more patience with the ball in hand and finding shooters in space for clean looks. Vooch, Chasson Randle and Dwayne Bacon were all able to get the ball through the bottom of the net during the sequence, part of a 14-4 run that briefly pushed them back in front.
However, it was the Jazz who were eventually able to seize the ascendancy. They rattled off an 11-3 spurt of their own in the half’s final two minutes, finding cheap points on the offensive glass and benefiting from some tough foul calls and a frustration technical accrued by Michael Carter-Williams. When the teams went down the tunnel it was 54-50 in Utah’s favor, a score reflective of the back-and-forth nature of the contest to this point.
The box score emphasized the oddness of the first half. The Jazz had the lead despite shooting just 4-11 from the free throw line and seeing their starting backcourt combine for an arctic 1-10 from the field. Instead, they had built their lead on the back of second chance points — 17 total courtesy of 7 offensive rebounds — and interior efficiency (13 of 22 inside the arc, including 22 points in the paint). For the Magic, their 8 three-pointers at 50% accuracy and solid ball security (just two turnovers) is what was keeping them in the contest, along with the offensive reliability of All-Star Vooch who had 18 points on 14 shots at the break.
The third quarter opened with some familiar issues for the Magic. Utah continued to lean on the space created by Gobert’s picks, with both Mitchell and Ingles going to work with the ball in hand. Crisp ball movement also required Orlando to stay attached on defense, with the rotations twice breaking down in such a way as to gift Ingles a pair of wide-open three point attempts. He canned them both, with the second putting the Magic in a 10 point hole and forcing them to an early time out.
An efficient offense continued to largely elude Orlando, but they were able to scrape together enough opportunities to keep them within striking distance of the Jazz. Aminu continued to hustle on the offensive glass, while Bacon, Fournier and Vucevic all made a concerted effort to play with aggression and attack the rack. Late in the period it was Vooch who was able to put together a short streak, pushing his own individual tally to 29 with 11 in the quarter. However, the Magic were having little luck containing Mitchell, who really started to dominate during the term. He was everywhere, accumulating 15 points and 3 assists in the period as he shook off his slow start. A late Okeke hook from the low block cut the deficit to 11, but the 87-76 margin was beginning to reflect the actual level of control the Jazz were exerting on the contest.
A pair of early Bamba triples threatened to make things interesting, but the Jazz were able to quickly stabilize. Mitchell and Clarkson continued to wreak havoc, nailing outside jumpers, getting to the line, and taking advantage of any space that presented itself in the middle. Their output was a stark contrast to Orlando’s own wing scorers, with Fournier and Terrence Ross emblematic of the tough shooting night that had unfurled. The pair were a combined 11-36 on the night, with just one make from thirteen long range attempts and only three trips to the free throw line to offset this inaccuracy. They were among the Magic’s leading scorers, but it wasn’t the level of efficient support that Vucevic required.
Utah ultimately closed the contest in a clinical fashion, getting to the line over and over again and finishing from in close. Orlando got some points on the board as the defensive sting came out of the game somewhat, but they couldn’t pile up enough of them to meaningfully cut into the Jazz’s lead. It continued to hover around the 15-point mark, with an MCW layup in transition shrinking it to 12 and forcing Utah to talk things over. That was as close as things would get though, with Mitchell killing Orlando one final time by adding another quick — and seemingly effortless — 6 points. When the game closed it was 124-109 Utah’s way, a decisive margin reflective of the lack of real challenge the Magic mustered in the second half.
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 — the big man is an incredibly deserving All-Star, a fact he rammed home again in this one. 34 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists and a highlight reel slam from the only player the Magic were able to reliably count on.
Second star: Al-Farouq Aminu — 7 points and 6 rebounds don’t exactly scream star performance, but his hustle and energy was evident throughout. Got a three-pointer to go and fought his way to 4 boards on the offensive glass.
Third star: Mo Bamba — it was only a cameo, but the big guy tossed up 11 points, 3 rebounds and a block in just 12 minutes of court time. The yell he unleashed after stuffing home an alley-oop seemed somewhat therapeutic.
The loss drops Orlando to 13-21 on the season with the All-Star break looming, three-and-a-half games out of the eighth seed in the conference and with an incredibly difficult schedule on the horizon. They’re back in action on Monday against the Mavs.