Welcome to a new era of Magic basketball. How this period will eventually come to be defined is not yet known, but tonight’s game at least provided a glimpse of what to expect across the remainder of this season. An Orlando side stretched thin by the recent flurry of franchise-altering trades lined up against a Blazers side missing Damien Lillard, compiling a largely competitive effort despite being on the wrong side of a stark talent deficit. Let’s unpack the action.
Surprisingly, the Magic were able to jump out to an early lead thanks to some accurate shooting. Dwayne Bacon used a Khem Birch screen to rise up for an elbow jumper. The Big Maple then slow-dribbled into his own 20 foot jump shot, before Chuma Okeke drilled a smooth triple off an alert James Ennis kick out. Orlando had built a 7-1 advantage in just 78 seconds, an unexpected start to a new era of basketball.
The pleasant surprises largely kept on coming through the first quarter. Okeke maintained his recent blistering shooting stroke, racking up 10 total in the period on a perfect 4-4 from the field. Bacon helped to keep the scoreboard ticking over with some strong finishes, while also doing a serviceable job when called on to take lead ballhandling duties. Birch hustled hard and extended possessions with smart work on the boards. Michael Carter-Williams shook off an early illness to enter the fray. Even Mo Bamba got in on the act, bullying the smaller Nassir Little in the post and finishing with a sweet hook. Despite some leaky defense the Magic were right in the thick of it, down just three as the quarter-time siren sounded.
Things started to gum up for Orlando in the second quarter. The team found scoring a collectively difficult proposition, with stagnant possessions and the MCW-Bamba two-man game failing to generate clean looks. The Blazers were also having a little too much success against the Magic’s 2-3 zone, picking it apart for wide open looks from the perimeter. A pair of back-to-back makes from deep put Portland up by 43-34, and it was starting to look like things were getting out of hand.
To Orlando’s credit they were able to steady things for a stretch, the result of active defense by Birch and Okeke. Points were still hard to come by, but they at least made things more difficult for the opposition by dragging them into a rock fight. It was only a momentary salve, however, with the Blazers eventually using Enes Kanter to pulverize Bamba in the post before taking advantage of the extra space this generated on the perimeter. The deficit swelled to as many as 13 before eventually settling at 65-55 at the main break, a margin that would have been worse if not for a fortuitous five point possession that included an and-one opportunity, an offensive rebound and a downtown splash from Ennis.
The halftime boxscore was telling. Portland were an even 50.0% from the field, including a mark of 11-22 from deep that accounted for a 12 point long-range advantage. They were also slightly better from the charity stripe, getting 16 attempts to Orlando’s 13 and making 10 (compared to 8). By comparison, the Magic were impacted by some inefficient shooting nights, with Bacon just 2-9 at the break and Bamba not much better at 3-9. In fact, it was actually Okeke — in just his third career start — who was pacing the team to this point, although his 15 on a scorching 6-7 from the field wasn’t enough to offset the inaccuracy elsewhere; collectively Orlando was converting at a rate of just 41.7% from the field. If the side was going to get back into the contest they would need to bridge that gap.
The third quarter followed a familiar pattern in its opening stages. Orlando really struggled to establish any defensive momentum, routinely giving up clean looks from beyond the arc to Portland. The Magic’s offense also remained a sluggish affair, with penetration hard to come by and ball movement frequently either slow or non-existent. Thankfully Okeke was able to keep up his torrid pace from deep with another clean release (his fourth of the game), and when some of his teammates finally started hitting shots the momentum swung. Ennis got a three from the wing to fall. Bacon and Birch hit back-to-back mid-range jumpers. Chasson Randle lofted a soft, high-arcing floater that found the bottom of the net, the cap on a 9-0 run that sliced the margin to just two, 73-71 in Portland’s favor.
The Magic continued to push coming out of a timeout. The team was active in attacking the hoop, with cutters moving through the painted area and MCW finishing a touch drive that briefly knotted things up. The defense also seemed to find another gear, playing with an obvious level of physicality and a team-wide commitment to cleaning the defensive glass. A pump fake delivered Bamba a smooth drive and dunk that limited the deficit to a single basket, Orlando down just 80-77 at the end of the quarter.
The game’s final frame was a see-sawing affair, with both teams visibly pushing the pace and ratcheting up the physicality. The opening minutes featured the trading of baskets from inside the arc before eventually giving way to long-range warfare. Robert Covington drilled a triple to push the Blazers to a six point lead. The Magic responded with a pair of back-to-back three-point makes, first to Randle before Ennis pulled the trigger on a deep attempt that knotted the scores. A CJ McCollum bomb gave Portland the lead once again, the opening salvo in a quick 7-0 burst fueled by Orlando’s own passing miscues. This burst sent both teams to a huddle, the Magic facing a 101-94 deficit with a shade under five minutes to play.
Coming out of the timeout the Magic chipped away at the margin through the play of MCW, Ennis and Bacon, forcing another break in play when they drew within four. However, the team never could quite find the plays they needed in the closing minutes, with some unfortunate turnovers and tough misses ultimately dooming them. The final result was a 112-105 loss, a spirited Orlando performance considering the difficult circumstances.
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: Chuma Okeke — a career high 22 for the first year forward, courtesy of an eye-popping 9-15 from the field and 4-6 from deep. He also chipped in 6 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 steals, while demonstrating individual defensive gains in his matchup against Carmelo (who torched him last time out).
Second star: Khem Birch — no flash, but plenty of heart and hustle from the Magic’s new starting center. The big man racked up 14, 15 and 4, along with 4 steals and a block for good measure. Make of this what you will, but he’s now maybe the Magic’s most indispensable.
Third star: James Ennis — a composed all-round game from the veteran, who finished with 18 points, 4 assists, 3 rebounds, some timely cuts, and an impressive 4 of 6 from deep.
You know what, this wasn’t as bad as most probably thought it would be. The Magic hustled all night long in a game they were obviously outgunned in, falling away only in the final minutes because of execution, not effort. There are undoubtedly tough times to come, but tonight the first step in the latest rebuild was at least a positive one.