Two nights after having their six-game winning streak snapped in heartbreaking fashion against the Hawks, the Magic lined up against the Rockets in Houston. Despite a slow start they were eventually able to exert their will on the contest, the team digging its way out of a fifteen-point second-half hole with a decisive fourth quarter performance.
Orlando started like a team playing a fourth road game in six nights, with sluggish effort and sloppy execution allowing Houston to build an early lead. Three early three–pointers against a Magic defense that was consistently going under screens proved worrying, as did the Rockets’ transition game that was being prompted by Orlando’s carelessness with the ball in hand. The deficit quickly hit double-figures, swelling to as many as 14 at one stage.
A pair of putbacks by Mo Bamba helped the Magic generate some points to stay in touch, valuable buckets that came despite the collective cold shooting. Paolo Banchero was then able to get going, the talented rookie scoring 7 straight to bring his personal tally for the quarter to 14 (with 6 rebounds) and to get Orlando back within two possessions. A quarter that had once looked to be getting out of hand actually settled at 31-25, the Magic closer than they probably deserved.
Many of the same problems persisted for the Magic to open the second, Houston routinely springing open for lightly-contested threes and adding to that with a series of transition chances. Franz Wagner was able to stem the tide with some timely off-ball cuts for clean finishes, and when the team finally found some shot luck the tide began to turn. A Kevon Harris triple to end what had looked like a wayward possession triggered the shift, threes from Franz, Cole Anthony and Moe Wagner soon following and closing the gap to 52-49.
Unfortunately the Magic weren’t able to make further headway before the halftime break, the Rockets again drawing on a combination of threes, attempts in the lane, and offensive rebounds to close on a run. They ultimately cobbled together a 12-5 stretch, going into the main break with a 64-54 advantage.
At the half the Magic were led by Banchero’s 14 points and 8 rebounds, but the team’s inability to get him a basket in the second speaks some to the problems encountered. Elsewhere Franz had 9 and Anthony 7, the latter also adding 5 assists without a turnover in a strong showing. Collectively the team shot 41.3% (19-46) from the floor, a cold touch from deep (5-20 – 25.0%) offset by the 11 free throws they hit from 12 attempts.
Defensively there was much requiring Orlando’s attention, Houston’s 52.2% (24-46) from the floor and 39.1% (9-23) from deep emblematic of the major concerns. All bar five of their shots came either within a couple of feet of the hoop or from beyond the arc, while they were also successful in converting the Magic’s 7 turnovers into 13 points. Considering the high-value nature of Houston’s shot profile a ten-point deficit was actually a somewhat fortunate circumstance for the Magic.
The Rockets threatened to run away with it in the third, a barrage of threes and finishes at the rim extending the margin to 15 and sending the Magic scuttling to a timeout. When they returned to the court the energy and effort was noticeably improved, a scrambling 2-3 zone giving Houston fits while also allowing Bol Bol to flash his prodigious shot-blocking skills. Ratcheting up the defense allowed the Magic to steadily construct a 10-0 run, drawing within 5 at 77-72.
Orlando continued to press in the quarter’s closing minutes, Franz and Markelle Fultz combining for a 7-0 burst built on counter-attacking out of the team’s active defense. When Franz picked off an errant pass sent into the teeth of the zone and flushed it at the other end it was suddenly 79 apiece, the score locked up for the first time since the opening quarter. It eventually settled at 87-85, the Magic trailing by two but right back in a game that had threatened to slip away.
Orlando pushed to take the lead on a couple of occasions over the next few minutes, eventually going up 96-95 on an Anthony triple. A strong transition finish by Admiral Schofield added to the advantage, the zone defense continuing to pay dividends against a Houston team that couldn’t unscramble it. When the bench unit eventually subbed out with about four minutes remaining the Magic were up 4, a chance to reload and close with the starters.
The Magic turned to Franz and Paolo down the stretch, working the offense through the impressive pair of playmaking forwards. Banchero continued to bully his way to the free-throw line for cheap points, while Wagner buried a huge three that briefly put Orlando up 8. Fultz also got in on the action, first scooping up a loose ball for a quick finish and then converting a tough driving sequence in transition. A brutal and brilliant isolation bucket by Banchero effectively iced it, the Magic taking it 116-110 despite tough shooting nights from both deep (29.7% – 11-37) and the free-throw line (69.7% – 23-33).
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: Paolo Banchero — the twentieth 20+ point performance of the rookie’s career paced the Magic, the dynamic big man putting up a final tally of 23, 13 and 3 with 2 steals and a game-clinching bucket for good measure.
Second star: Franz Wagner — started slow but turned up when the team most needed him, finding buckets when things started to stall and then drilling some huge shots in the clutch. Finished with 25 points including 4-8 from deep.
Third star: The Magic’s bench — 37 collective points, a positive plus/minus all round, and, perhaps most importantly, just a single turnover for the team’s reserve unit. They erased a fourth quarter deficit and then staked the starters a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
The Magic are in action one more time before Christmas, a home game against the Spurs on the schedule for Friday night. Let’s see if they can continue their winning ways back in Central Florida.