Who says a team can’t rebuild while also getting some signature wins?
Losses may be the preferred result right now for most of the Orlando Magic fanbase, and perhaps even the front office, in order to put the team in the best possible position for the draft lottery, but you know the Magic’s thrilling comeback win over the Clippers on Tuesday was worthwhile when you see a reaction like this...
The Magic erased a nine-point deficit over the final four minutes, and got key contributions from several members of their young core, in what was one of their better wins of the season. Deep down, even the most hardcore pro-tankers must have appreciated the victory.
Wins might be few and far between for this Heart and Hustle 2.0 team, but in their three games since the trade deadline, they have remained competitive in some difficult matchups (albeit with a Damian-Lillard-less Blazers team, LeBron-and-AD-less Lakers team, and Paul-George-less Clippers team). Even without those stars, each team is deep enough to handle an undermanned Magic team, and still, Orlando showed effort and gritty toughness throughout to nearly steal a victory.
Chuma Okeke is emerging as a do-it-all, swiss-army knife type of player. Over his last four games, the rookie is averaging 17.8 points, 4.8 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.3 steals over his last four games, while shooting 62.8 percent from the field and 63.2 percent on 4.8 threes per. Wendell Carter Jr. in the fourth quarter against the Clippers provided the Magic with interior defense they have not had in quite some time with Nikola Vucevic on the court down the stretch, and may have earned himself a promotion into the starting lineup. Mo Bamba is showing no hesitation as he shoots with confidence. Otto Porter Jr. and R.J. Hampton are beginning to carve out roles for themselves.
And the Magic might be catching another team playing without its superstar.
Zion Williamson suffered a sprained thumb in the Pelicans’ win over the Celtics on Monday and is listed as questionable for Thursday’s game against the Magic, though he reportedly avoided a more severe injury that would have caused him to miss an extended period.
Zion has yet to face the Magic, missing both of the Pelicans’ games against Orlando during his rookie season due to injury or rest as he took part in just 24 regular season games. Named an All-Star this season, the 20-year-old has missed just two games and is averaging 26.4 points, 7.1 rebounds and 3.5 assists while shooting 62.4 percent on 16.2 field goal per game, including 34.8 percent on 0.5 three-point attempts per.
With his ability to overpower opponents inside, the interior game of the 6-foot-7, 284-pound Williamson is drawing comparisons to a smaller and more agile version of Shaquille O’Neal. Fittingly, if Zion is able to play against the Magic he will be looking to tie Shaq’s record of 25 consecutive games of scoring 20-plus points while shooting at least 50 percent from the field.
Zion Williamson had his 24th consecutive game tonight with 20 pts on 50% shooting, 1 shy of tying Shaquille O'Neal for the longest such streak in the Shot-Clock Era (since 1954-55) h/t @EliasSports pic.twitter.com/5NMjjglhMQ— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 30, 2021
The Pelicans - coached by our old friend Stan Van Gundy - have won four of their last five games and currently sit three games out of the eighth spot and 1.5 games out of the 10th spot for the play-in tournament. During that five-game surge, Zion has averaged 32.4 points on 66.7 percent shooting. Brandon Ingram is matching the production from his breakout year last season, averaging 23.8 points per game and shooting over 38 percent on 6.2 threes per game. Lonzo Ball, who is also listed as questionable against the Magic, is averaging a career-best 14.2 points while also shooting over 38 percent on 7.8 threes per game.
Add it all up and the Pelicans have posted the best offensive rating in the league since late-January at 119.6 points per 100 possessions, and overall they are seventh-best at 115.9. Led by Zion, they are one of the league’s most efficient teams, shooting 48.7 percent from the field (third best) and they get to the line more than most with 25.1 attempts per (third most). Defensively, they are towards the bottom of the league with a rating of 115.5 points per, third worst in the league.
With or without Zion, they’ll be favored over Orlando. But the new-look Magic have shown that they should not be taken lightly.
Who: Orlando Magic (16-31) at New Orleans Pelicans (21-25)
When: Thursday at 8 p.m.
Where: Smoothie King Center - New Orleans, Louisiana
TV: Bally Sports Sun